The following interview contains Strong Language.
|Cover to Uncanny X-Men #423|
Luckily, Chuck Austen is both.
Austen began work on "Uncanny X-Men" late in 2002 and has been receiving a lot of acclaim for his work, which many have hailed as a return to form for the often-criticized "Uncanny X-Men" series. For the writer, the key to making "Uncanny X-Men" a hit with fans is taking it all back to the basics. "'Uncanny X-Men' is about mutants, generally considered a breed of 'evolved humans,' for lack of a better word, who generally have superpowers, and are harbored in a school by the most powerful mutant on earth, Charles Xavier," explains Austen. "He is their mentor and teacher, and they travel the globe, searching for and helping other mutants.
"'Uncanny' is much more of a soap opera than other superhero comics, or even other X-Men comics, at least the way I write it. What interests me most is interpersonal relationships and conflict, and adding the layer of having super powers on top of every day romances and schisms is fun and fascinating, for me.
"The thing that makes it unique is the point of view. These are people who are in the position they occupy, not by choice, but by force of nature, and by additional force of social ostracism and prejudice. They are not vigilantes, so much as people who are out there doing what they need to do to survive and co-exist on this planet. It's a unique perspective in comics that are predominantly about emotionally wounded or damaged vigilantes who are out fighting because of guilt or loss they can't move beyond. More interesting to me, at least."
|Uncanny X-Men #421, Page 2|
"Banner becomes Hulk because he feels impotent with the woman he loves. At the end of 'Ultimates #7,' Cap is going off to kick Hank Pym's ass because Pym beat on Jan. That's a real reason to kick someone's ass. I like and feel more connected to that kind of motivation than I do 'Villain wants to rule the world!'
"I don't know if what I'm saying can be better said, as much as more entertainingly said, with superheroics, if that makes sense. Juggernaut dealing with an abusive childhood is more interesting on some level than the latest Pat Conroy novel, although they may cover the same territory, and his may be better written. It's that added level of fantasy that makes it more interesting, and a lot more fun, I think. I don't really know why. I've wondered about this for some time, and believed that this was the direction entertainment would go.
"It's an interesting question, and one I'm not sure I can answer on more than just a gut level. I've asked the question many, many times. Why does 'The CALL' sell a tenth of what the X-Men sells? Same writer, great artist. 'Alias' sells far less than 'Ultimate Spiderman.' It has everything to do with the fantasy element, I think, making this stuff just more fun to read about. An extra layer of removal from the intensity of the emotions, maybe. I don't know. Good question. Wish I had a better answer."
While it should seem fairly obvious that a love of super heroes themselves acts as an inspiration for his "Uncanny X-Men" stories, Austen says that there's an even grander and more important inspiration, "Life," he explains, "All my stories are inspired by life. Juggernaut's abusive past mirrors my own. My approach to Stacy X is based on a sibling. Bobby, Iceman, is based on my brother. A relative's unrequited feelings as a nurse's aide in her younger years for a comatose patient led to Annie and Alex. I just added in the fantasy element, looking at it from the real world perspective. How would things play out if the man in the coma were an incredibly powerful mutant? Someone shunned by society? Or someone who could read minds? Fly? It's pretty simple really, once you have the undercurrent.
"The latest arc, 'The Dominant Species,' came from the idea that mutants are 'Homo-Superior.' This is contrary to what evolution is all about. There is no 'superior,' there is only 'that which is best adapted for survival.' Similar mutations find one another and breed, if the mutation is considered desirable, they band together, and if they're more adapted to survival, they win. Simple as that.
"Humans consider themselves 'superior' to animals, but from an evolutionists point of view they're merely better at survival because of the complexity of their brains and level of communication.
"I took that element of the X-Men, and layered in the story of a man I knew whose wife had recently died. He had been having an affair and they had separated, and then she died suddenly in a car crash, and he broke apart because he could never fix things with her.
"Well, what if she could come back to him from the dead and try to resolve things? It all dovetailed nicely with Psylocke and Warren's relationship and allowed me a neat layer to the evolution and superiority story. What does 'evolved' really mean? Superior? If we're so 'evolved,' why do we cause so much pain and misery to those we purport to love? Why do we kill our own? If we're so 'evolved,' what happens when something more evolved comes along to replace us? What makes us more worthy? And if they're stronger and tougher and meaner, all we have left to claim superiority is our humanity, our love of others, our higher level of 'evolution.'
|Uncanny X-Men #421, Page 3|
"There's another arc coming that is inspired by my own search for a father figure after my father abandoned me. It's a story about Kurt, and his need for a mentor, and his trying to find it in others, and eventually that need leading to his search for his real father, whoever that might have been.
"Like I said, all based in reality, either my own, or someone I know."
One of the big draws that "Uncanny X-Men's" had under Austen's tenure has been his diverse cast and one of the surprise members has been the villain Juggernaut, brother of X-Men founder Charles Xavier. Juggernaut recently made a speech to one of the students, Sammy, about villainy and in many ways it seemed like the "villain" was trying to justify his past actions, painting himself as a victim of circumstance rather than a perpetrator of crimes. When asked if that was to be Juggy's intent, Austen nodded in agreement and said that we hit it right on the head. "Oh, yeah. Absolutely. But he was also being truthful. A villain never sees themselves as a villain. They see themselves as having to do what's necessary to reach their goal, even when their goal runs contrary to the goals of society. It's the feeling inside us all that we know better than everyone else. It's a matter of some innate, inner self-confidence we possess as a species. It's often only in retrospect, or through the eyes of others that a villain sees what they did as possibly wrong.
"Ask Saddam Hussein if he's a villain. Ted Bundy, if he were still alive. Hitler. I saw an episode of Oprah where a woman who had been molested by her father her entire life appeared with her parents, although the father remained hidden in shadows. He saw his actions, his raping and molesting his only daughter, as the actions of a man trying to help his child understand men, their needs and desires. He felt it was an experience she would gain from. Many child molesters feel this way. That they are somehow 'teaching' or 'enlightening' the children they violate. Or worse, that the children 'deserve' their treatment, and even want it.
"I recently saw an interview with members of the Russian Red Army who were still alive after World War 2. One Russian talked about how, after the war, he would bring Nazi officers into his office under the guise of interrogating them. Then, as they entered the door, this Russian shoved a knife in through the side of their necks, and opened their throats so they would bleed to death on the floor.
"In the interview, the ex-soldier, who is a college professor now, looks off-camera at his unseen interviewer and says, and I'm paraphrasing here, obviously, 'Don't roll your eyes. Don't judge me. These were men who minutes before had killed my friends, had intended to, and tried to, kill me. What I did seems horrible to you, but it was just.'
"He was young then, he was emotionally involved, and he was, sixty years later, still able to justify his actions, at least to himself, and did not see it as 'villainy.'"
But even if Juggernaut does not consider himself a villain, a lot of the characters in the story sure will and that sentiment will be echoed by the readers of "Uncanny X-Men." However, as Austen notes, Juggernaut may not be the mass murderer that some believe him to be and as such, fitting him into the X-Men will be an easier task. "Well, we looked into Cain's history, and he, as far as we know, has never actually killed anyone (as ridiculous as that might seem)," explains the X-scribe. "I made a point of looking into it because there was a scene I wrote where he asks Annie out on a date and she says, 'Have you ever killed anyone? Because if you have, the answer is 'no.'
|Uncanny X-Men #421, Page 4|
"Juggernaut's role is to be the 'anti-Xavier.' Cain is into sports, physical in every way, intense, crass, and juvenile. Xavier's polar-opposite. He's the perfect pal to a lot of the younger boys at Xavier's."
Another character getting quite a strong focus in "Uncanny X-Men" is Angel and Austen says he sees a lot of himself in the playboy character whose been affecting the series dramatically. "What intrigues me about Warren is his 'mortality' and the amazing amount of shit he's gone through, and survived. He's a metaphor for my own life, in a lot of ways. Losing his wings, being turned blue, getting metallic wings, becoming the angel of death. He went through the ordeal, and he survives, and he prospers.
"The man used to be a handsome, rich, playboy who looked like an angel and probably was to all the many women he dated, and that was his identity. Boring, but a start. Now he's gone through a lot, he's been losing himself in his business to hide from the pain of losing Betsy and being left with the blue residue in his skin post-Apocalypse, and he hasn't found himself. Hasn't figured out who he is or is supposed to be, in a lot of ways. But he's trying to hold it together and look like the man in charge. Who hasn't felt that way? Like you have to look in control, even if you're not.
"I've been in Warren's shoes. Not that I've lost a girlfriend or owned a multi-billion dollar business. But I've had my single, heavy dating period where I saw a lot of women, never thought I'd get married, and then grew up and changed my interests. Warren is going through something I went through, and that makes him fascinating to me. He's at that 'What's next for me' stage I was at a few years ago.
"He's a great character, and like so many of the 'Uncanny' team, he's been left alone and ignored so long, he was like a blank slate I could dive into and make whole."
There's one aspect of his character that Austen's been tinkering with that fans feel isn't as much of a blank slate as the writer believes, namely Angel's knowledge of his own business holdings and their activities. In recent issues of "Uncanny X-Men," it's become obvious that the rich X-Man isn't as well versed in his own businesses as he could be and the exploration of this aspect of his personality has upset some fans who believe that Warren should have a complete knowledge of his company's business dealings. "This was one of my favorite things I've done with Warren," admits Austen. "It was based on a conversation I had with a FOX executive when I was working on 'King of the Hill.' He told me about a meeting with Rupert Murdoch where a discussion of something came up, and Rupert turned and told an aide 'look into that company. See if we should buy it.' The aide said 'Sir. You already own it.' Remember Michael Jordan being accused of having his name on a shoe manufactured in sweat shops by children?
"I thought it was hilarious that a man could have so much, so many things, that he didn't know everything that was his. It was like me, or anyone, on an immense scale. I've bought books I already had, but forgot I'd read or hadn't read yet. Milk when I already have it. Being in the position he's in, Murdoch didn't need to know if he owned it or not. You pay attention to the cool toys and leave the rest to the poor kids to play with. That's what assistants are for.
"This goes to being an environmental menace, as well. [Note: the problem that Warren is unaware of in the most recent 'Uncanny' issue] Why would Warren know this, unless, as it is happening now, people were starting to complain or it's brought to his attention? He has bigger things to worry about, supposedly, as the head of the company, than where toxic sludge is being dumped by some unruly underling. Of course, when he finds out about it, he would presumably fix things, but he has to have the control, and the power to do that. Does he?
|Uncanny X-Men #421, Page 8|
"So Warren never spent that much time learning from his father, as you said, he's spent more time out saving the world and trying to be a superhero, living at Xavier's, being Angel and Archangel. Now, if he survives, he's going to become a businessman, and he's going to need help, he's going to need someone he can trust to work by his side. So if he gets out of this, he'll be a different guy, with a different approach. If he lives.
"Northstar has always been a business man first, and Northstar second. He knows what he's doing and he loves it and takes a serious approach to it. So naturally, he's riding Warren about his inadequacies.
"There are other people in charge of Warren's companies who have been keeping things from him, other people who took power when Warren's father was killed, and Warren has been so hands off, he has no clue. The person in power has been giving him enough of the toys to keep him happy, helping Warren vanquish the Vanisher, buy out Storm's television show, etceteras, etceteras, but the real business proceeds without Warren. There are things going on with this company that will shock Warren when he finally discovers them. If he lives.
"And yeah, that's mostly because he's been hanging with the X-Men and not learning at his father's side. Which, he'll learn, is how his father wanted it. His father never wanted his son to follow in his footsteps. He knew Warren was made of different stuff, and wanted to encourage his son to be himself. So Warren became the playboy superhero with his father's money and blessing.
"Hey, Warren owned a brothel and didn't know about it. Lobo-Tech is a hi-Tech firm that looks like a dozen other hi-tech firms on paper. Hardly seems a stretch to me."
When CBR News moves on to questioning Austen about Stacy-X, the X-Men's "whore," Austen laughs despite the technically accurate description of the character's previous occupation. "I love how people refer to her. I actually put that in the most recent issue, and Warren says, 'Does anyone ever call her 'Stacy?' She's a woman first, in my mind. But we'll cover that."
As the character was a creation of previous scribe Joe Casey, many assumed that after Casey left, she'd be gone, but Austen's not only kept her on the team, he's also given her an arguably more prominent position on the team (no pun intended). Surprisingly, he says that there isn't anything about the character that makes her particularly creatively enthralling in his mind. "Honestly? Nothing," he admits. "I thought I was stuck with her when I took over the book, and I made the most of her (laughs). Then I began to realize she was full of conflict, internally and externally, and that makes for an interesting dynamic, creatively. She also reminds me of my sister, someone who used her beauty and sexuality in a desperate attempt to get happiness with all the wrong people for all the wrong reasons.
"She became more interesting to me because I thought at the time I had to use her and tried to make her a positive. Sometimes when you're forced to do something you come up with more creative solutions to than if you got what you wanted, and it becomes more fun. Juggernaut was like that. He was my second choice when I couldn't have Colossus, but now I'm happier with him than I would have been with Colossus.
"She is a woman, and a human being, after all. I find it interesting that people keep looking at this as some kind of 'Heart of Gold' cliche, but I've just made her human. She's has a soft side, as does Cain, and Annie, and Sammy, and all the others I write, and she's also tough as nails, surly, demanding and needy. She seems pretty multi-dimensional to me, but maybe I'm too close.
"If she were following the stereotype, she would find herself, her heart of gold, turn everything around and become a 'born-again virgin.' But she won't. She's too conflicted, and will eventually leave the mansion, and the series. Stacy is a damaged person who will likely never be able to fix herself. So pretty soon, she's going away. I had always intended for her to run her course and then exit if I lasted long enough, and that time is drawing near. So, stereotype or not, she won't be around much longer."
|Uncanny X-Men #421, Page 9|
One of the most beloved characters in X-Men history is Kurt Wagner, AKA Nightcrawler, and Austen's affection for the character has shone through in his work so far on "Uncanny." But with the heavy religious aspects of Kurt's character, specifically his devotion to the Church, one might expect there to be some difficulty in exploring those sometimes controversial aspects in a PG comic book. "I love Nightcrawler," gushes Austen. "I've said often he is my favorite character. Or was. I love them all equally, now. And he was the most screwed up, as far as I was concerned, so I needed to focus on him to get him back to being unscrewed.
"And the religion thing has been pretty easy. I've had nothing changed, in that regard. I have a harder time with the sexuality of the language, actually. Certain words that are common around my house can't get past Joe Q. But mostly it's minor. Marvel has been pretty good about letting me go nuts with stuff. Even encouraging me to go further. There's a two-parter coming with the Church of Humanity that is hard core in it's approach to religion, and the evil that religions can be. I actually expected that script to get kicked out entirely, but they loved it. Mike Raicht called me and said 'Best script, EVER!' He was exaggerating, but I love him for it."
Something else that Austen's been positioning Nightcrawler for, at least potentially, is a relationship with the aforementioned Stacy and when asked about the possibility of those getting together, the writer… throws readers for a loop with his trademark sense of humor.
"Who do you think is getting married?
"No, I'm being a smartass. Nightcrawler's not ready, and Stacy is in love with Warren. But something big happens in 'The Dominant Species' that cuts Stacy out of Warren's heart, forever, and she knows it's coming. Has known for a while. That's why she went for Kurt. Pain, need, and desperation. She doesn't really love Kurt. She's got it bad for Warren, and is just looking for something, anything, else to make her feel better."
Realizing that he's on a roll and his stand up comedy routine is a hit with comic fans worldwide, Austen doesn't waste any time crafting a witty reply to queries about the fate of X-man Havok, who is currently stuck in a coma and is being nursed back to health at Xavier's mansion. "No, he's never waking up," says Austen with a straight face. "We're going to do a spin-off series called 'Coma Boy,' the adventures of a man in a hospital bed. It's going to be in the MAX line. So he'll be naked, getting sponge baths from pretty nurses.
"Yeah, Havok wakes up in 420, but something starts him coming out of it next issue, in 418."
For those fans who may not be too familiar with Havok, also known as Alex Summers and the younger brother of Cyclops, Austen kindly provides a nice introduction to the character. "Alex is the younger brother, who's spent most of his life trying to prove himself. He was adopted when Scott wasn't, he had a family life when Scott didn't, he had Lorna, and still he's always felt secondary to Scott. Now he's been through a lot and he's been in another dimension and had a whole other life. He fell in love, became a father to a boy who wasn't really his, and he did it all well, on his own, with no Scott to lord over him. So now he's back, he's matured and I think he's ready to be his own man, out of his brother's shadow, and start a new life for himself.
"I'm eager to start that new life and get it rolling. He's been in the coma too long for me, too. Wasn't supposed to be this long, but scheduling for the movie changed things a lot."
Speaking of scheduling, there's that wedding coming up quickly in "Uncanny" and Austen is quite happy to tease fans a little more about the identity of the people involved. "The wedding is announced in 421. One character proposes to another, and off we go. It's two people who come through the Dominant Species arc changed. I'd love to tell you everything, but I have to keep it quiet. I'm incorrigible that way. And there's so much speculation! It amazes me, but looking at it from the outside, there are a lot of possibilities as to who it could be, and I like it that way.
"I never intended to keep this a surprise, but people are going nuts online and everyone is getting so into the 'who will it be?' aspect, that I'm having fun playing out the possibilities and teasing it along. It's going to be a shock, but not for the reason people think it's going to be a shock. It affects the book in a huge way, but all the ramifications won't be seen for some time. Of course, as soon as it's announced, there will be some seriously broken hearts and some very upset people who didn't want it to happen, both fans and people in the cast of characters. It's not going to be all love and roses."
When CBR News last spoke extensively with Austen about "Uncanny X-Men," the predominant themes of his work had seemed to be family and personal responsibility. However, it would now seem the main themes of the series are growing up and discovering one's true self, themes that Austen finds resonate deep within himself and feels are important to the essence of the X-Men, which is why they're striking a chord with readers. "It is striking a chord with readers, isn't it? Sales are picking up, and reaction is generally pretty good.
"I think what strikes a chord with me, and possibly the readers as well, is that we all make such amazing personal discoveries in our time here, and it's fun to see, within a creative framework, others trying roads we never traveled, wanted to travel, or never would or could have traveled. It's seeing that option, that road we never took, and where it might have led. If we had married, or hadn't married, or had children, or if we had powers, or friends with powers. That's the role of fantasy, I think, to see our other options played out before us creatively, and reaffirm that our choices weren't so bad, as the other road is often just different, not necessarily better or worse.
"Seeing that helps us to continue to 'evolve' ourselves, either by showing us a better choice we should have made, or making us feel better about the choices we did make. We've gotten some great letters about Xavier and Northstar's exchange in issue 415, when Xavier says 'we both know sexual preference is a misnomer. It's more accurately called sexual determination.' People who felt like they had somehow made a choice they were never a part of suddenly felt great about themselves because they knew what Xavier said was true and correct, and they were pleased to see it in print, reaffirming them. They had not shown a preference. Homosexual is what they were.
"And personal responsibility is still a strong theme with me, and will continue to rear it's thematic head, but finding who you are is as timeless as the question of 'why are we here?' Everyone feels they have a greater purpose in life. Sometimes we feel guided, other times we feel completely on our own and isolated in the cosmos, as if there is no God, or divine guiding hand. Life is random chance.
|Uncanny X-Men #421, Page 12|
"'Uncanny X-Men' is about people who are faced with 'Determination,' not choice, and have to make the best of it. It's a metaphor for so many things, but mostly it's a metaphor for people who feel like life has dealt them a bum hand, and need to see that it can be turned into a winning hand."
With a steady increase in sales on "Uncanny X-Men," which isn't the norm for an X-series these days, Austen says, " It's Kia Asamiya (laughs). I don't know. God. Luck. The alignment of Jupiter and Uranus. I'd like to say my writing, but I honestly don't know.
"If I have to give an answer, I think it's a synergy that exists between me, Mike Marts, Mike Raicht, Nova and the various artists. We just love working on this book, and I think it's infectious. The things I want to do are things they like. Mike and Mike are long time X-fans, and they give me lots of ideas that make this thing so much stronger than it would have been without them. Character suggestions, editorial notes, story ideas -- they're long-time X-Men fans and they're love of the franchise keeps us all energized. And Nova is the one who never read the X-Men, knows squat about continuity, and doesn't care about the depth of the universe. She's always making us keep it accessible to the rest of the world, the people who want a story, and not another brick in the wall of the continuity monument. She's the one who says, 'You have to make it so-and-so who falls in love. To hell with continuity. These are the characters a new reader is rooting for.'
"So I have to say it's a team effort. Plus I've got all these great characters created by Chris and Dave Cockrum and Len Wein. It's like being handed gold and being asked to make gold. 'But, but, but -- it's already there!'"
Speaking of Japanese superstar artist Kia Asamiya, Marvel promoted his work quite heavily with previews in the back of almost all their mainstream superhero comics and his work has met with a generally positive response, an especially positive response from Austen. "It's awesome!" says the writer/artist of working with Asamiya. "Kia's an incredible talent and I love what he brings to the art. Sometimes we have translation problems that make things interesting, but mostly it's incredible. I will always miss Sean Phillips, but damn, I get to work with some amazing talent on this book. Ron Garney, Kia, some new people no one's seen yet that are gonna burn holes in your eye-sockets.
"And I think the fans are warming up to Kia. They should shut up about the noses, already (laughs). Jeez."
Besides his work on "Uncanny X-Men," Austen is going to be quite busy, with some projects from Marvel he can't announce, including a dream project with "Legion" artist Kev Walker, whom he calls "amazing." One project he can talk about and has is "Captain America," the series he'll be writing for a little while this year. "It's damn exciting. What can I tell you? Cap and Spider Man are my two favorites of all time. It's not official that I'll get it permanent yet, but we'll see. My plans would be to Tom Clancy Cap. Making him a real soldier with modern weaponry and cool missions. We'll see.
"I have an idea that will make everyone lose their fucking minds! Fandom will RIOT! Jack Kirby will rise from the dead and gut me with a letter shaped cosmic device! And Joe has said he's down for it, if the sales hold while I'm writing it.
"Of course, in a year, someone else will come along who will make it all a bad dream, but it'll be fun for a few months."
Part of Austen's enthusiasm for Cap is a result of the fact that the character is so eternal and when asked about what makes the fighting American such an enduring fictional character, Austen replies with two words: Jack Kirby. "Is there a Kirby hero who isn't an eternal character?" asks Austen rhetorically. "He's a symbol, as much as a man. He is as iconic as Superman, and if there's a character at Marvel with that kind of power, it's Cap. Love him."
|Superman: Metropolis #2|
"And there's the relationship that Jimmy develops with the Tech, the stuff that's all over Metropolis. It's a blast… Like writing Twilight Zone episodes with Superman in them."
As much as the conversation drifts away from those lovable mutants, it can't help but return to them and Austen inevitably discussing the highlights of his time on "Uncanny X-Men. "It's only been a few months, but I'd have to say all of it has been pretty cool. God, it's the X-Men. Who would have ever thought?! But if I have to pick, I'd say Juggernaut has been my shining moment. I love what I've been able to do with him, and the stuff that's coming is so fun and incredible. I love Paige. Annie and Sammy have been such a treat to see come alive before my eyes.
|Superman: Metropolis #2, Page 2|
Undoubtedly, another great moment for Austen has been getting his wife to finally enjoy the medium that he loves to contribute to every month. He says that she didn't read comics before but, "She does now. It took a lot to get her to read, because she doesn't like the comics medium, but she enjoys what I'm doing with the X-Men, and she's excited to see where I take it. Especially since it looks like I'll get the chance now to see all my plans through."
And being the gentleman he is, Austen decides to whet the appetites of fans more with some teasers for the future that offer just enough hints to keep fans discussing the final fates of their favorite heroes. "We'll finally meet Kurt's father in the issues following the wedding, and find out where he's been," reveals Austen. "We'll finally answer the question of whether or not Mystique is Kurt's mother or not. We'll see an old villain return in a shocking and horrifying way. We'll see lots and lots of mutants die, but not in the 'millions in one sweep' way that Grant destroyed Genosha. I'm talking intimate, up-close and personal views of some horrible and tragic deaths brought on by this returning villain.
"There's an Avengers crossover planned for the end of the year. There's a new major villain coming at the end of the year who will change everything, and I mean EVERYTHING about the X-Universe. Kurt will get a new love interest. Warren will find a new love as well, eventually. Chamber will return. Northstar will develop a relationship, and there will be another wedding next summer, in 450. Maybe a double-wedding.
|Superman: Metropolis #2, Page 18|
Kicking it up yet another notch, Austen sums up what he feels 2003 will mean for "Uncanny X-Men":
"Big. Romantic. Shocking. But it's nothing compared to what's coming in 2004."