The New Mutant: Austen talks 'Exiles' and X-Criticism

"Hard core fans will have the same reaction as they do to everything I write- they'll hate it."

Chuck Austen laughed as he uttered those words to CBR News, explaining the work he'll be doing on Marvel Comics "Exiles" series as interim writer for the next six months, while previous writer Judd Winick explores life as a DC Comics exclusive creator. Austen's garnered a lot of fame for his high profile work on "Uncanny X-Men," "Captain America" and the new "Superman: Metropolis" maxi-series, but with the admittedly second-tier "Exiles," Austen hopes to show fans a little more about the characters and a little more about the fun to be had in superhero comics. For those who might be new to the alternate universe stories of "Exiles," the veteran scribe is glad to introduce readers to what he considers one of the most exciting series on the market.

"You mean there might be people coming on the series because of me- Austen fans? How many of those are there?" laughs a confused Austen. "This series is about anything you want it to be about. 'Exiles' is about a group of characters who are dimension hopping to try and fix the damage that was done to the multiverse. I don't know if that's confusing or not, but the basic idea is that every dimension's had something go wrong with it at some point in time and there's a character called the Timebroker who is forcing various different people from different dimensions to repair all the dimensions. Mainly this is an excuse for characters to go into any situation with Marvel continuity and play with it; screw with it and do anything. Heroes are Villains. Some villains are heroes. It's one of the most fun concepts I've ever worked on- it's very cool."

While there are sometimes two groups of characters in the spotlight of "Exiles," Austen's work will focus on the "good" group of characters and he provides a little insight into who exactly these heroes are in his story.

"The main characters are pretty diverse. We'd have to start with Calvin, whose codename is Mimic, and I guess he's a mutant though I've never been sure on his official origin, but his basic power is that he can absorb up to five different super characters' powers and he has a percentage of their strength. His basic personality is akin to that of Scott Summers (Cyclops)- he's a natural born leader, but more mellow and a nice guy. The whole dimension hopping with the rest of the Exiles has taken a toll on him, as he's lost someone he loved dearly and he's been forced to do a lot of thing he hasn't liked, such as killing people, without seeing hide nor hair of his own dimension. Then there's Sunfire, whose a Japanese woman and has the power of the sun, power of fire and power of explosive energy. She's also a lesbian, which is a fascinating aspect of her character and she's a very intelligent, funny character. One of her best friends on the team is Morph; I'm not sure anyone has an explanation for what he is! [laughs] He can be anything, he can change his body over into anything, he can fly, but he does have certain limitations: he can't gain super strength by getting super muscular or looking really buff. There's T.J Wagner, who's the son of Nightcrawler in her dimension, and has the power of possession- it's also interesting to note that her mother is the Scarlet Witch! I'll be playing with the neat parental combination in the 'Uncanny X-Men'/'Exiles' crossover later this year. Sasquatch is Heather Hudson, but in her dimension she's a black woman and was married to Wolverine before he was killed. She was a doctor and at this point she's probably the least developed character, but I get to play with her a little bit and she'll do a little bit of doctoring. I like all the characters and Judd's built a great cast that plays off each other really well.

"There's also a new character joining the cast- the cast size stays the same except when a character leaves the team. They're replaced immediately by another character, provided by the Timebroker, and recently the Exiles lost Blink, who was Calvin's girlfriend, who has seemingly returned to her own dimension. In her place has come Illyana Rasputin to replace her- she's an unknown, no one knows her and they're about to learn what she's really like."

Many fans laugh that Chuck Austen is Marvel Comics' "Mr. Fix It" these days, pinch hitting on many comics in their stable from "Captain America" to frequent issues of "X-Men Unlimited." But what drew Austen to "Exiles" wasn't simply a paycheck or chance for fame- it was his love of the book and challenge it presented. "Mike Raicht, who is the assistant editor of 'Uncanny X-Men' became the editor of 'Exiles' and when Judd signed his exclusive with DC, he'd written twelve additional issues of the series so that if he came back to Marvel after the contract, he could pick up where he left off," explains Austen. "But Mike wanted to hedge his bets a little bit and give Judd a little bit of breathing room, so he asked me to fill-in and I think was hoping that with my connection to 'Uncanny,' that I'd boost sales on 'Exiles.' I was asked for ideas on what I'd do and I said that I'd always wanted to see Judd do, and I do think he explores the concepts really well, is push the characters to the limit with a moral dilemma with a choice that has to be made. Do they continue to follow the edicts of the Timebroker in the vain hopes of returning home, no matter the consequences? Or do they stand up for what they truly believe in? The Exiles are faced with something pretty horrific and they have to make that choice."

As readers learned this Wednesday, the characters in "Exiles" will be dealing with the question of genocide and it'll divide the characters in ways characters won't expect. Some might wonder why Austen chose to begin his work with such a decidedly serious story and his reply is simple, "Because Judd had done everything so well with the series- he's explored so many different possibilities that he only left me one good story so I decided to come on and write two [laughs]. I'd read some of the scripts that he'd written after I'm done so I know he continues to explore the potential of the 'Exiles' concept really well. The only thing that I could think up and that he wasn't trying any time soon was this idea, which I know is dark, but that's really why I decided to do this. When I'm writing a story, I like to raise the stakes for the characters and make them face their most difficult challenges because it makes the story more powerful and meaningful for both the characters and the readers."

This story also allows Austen to do something no one else has done on "Exiles," save Winick- introduce readers to a new character. While Illyana Rasputin made her debut 4 issues ago, she appeared only in a couple of panels and it'll be Austen who shows readers just what kind of magic this girl can create. "Judd left me kind of a gap there to fill in," says Austen. "After the 'Weapon X' story, he was going to pick up with his regular Exiles group and there were to have been several missions in between, off panel, where the team discovered Illyana's personality. Since Judd had gone in that direction, it gave me the opportunity to show how the team learned what kind of personality she has and how they reacted to it initially. The long and short of it is that I'm still following Judd's lead on that one- he set up what she's going to be and I set up how that's revealed."

The character of Illyana Rasputin has developed a strong fan following and when asked how he thinks fans will respond to this new version of the character, Austen can't help but laugh wickedly. "Just like everything else I do, they're going to hate it! Actually, in all honesty, it's a small, but unfortunately vocal [laughs] minority who hate what I'm doing, obviously. It's not a bad thing though- if readers are emotionally involved, it means you got 'em. I remember that Brian Bendis once said that some of his most angry fans were the ones having the most fun and I think that's true. The fans are upset because they care!"

The second story arc in Austen's "Exiles" run will be a crossover of sorts with his most well-known work, "Uncanny X-Men" and will allow him to do something else Judd Winick hasn't done- show the Exiles interacting with the "real" characters. "What inspired the story was loose ends from 'Uncanny' that were somewhat continuity based and the sort of the attitude of Marvel to keep the main books continuity light," explains Austen. "Because 'Exiles' is a continuity heavy book, it seemed like the perfect place to play with a solution and to deal with some more of those continuity issues. It also gave me another opportunity to answer something about the Exiles that I had a question about since the beginning- how did things get to be the way that they are and what does the Timebroker have to do with it? I talked to Mike [Raicht] and asked if I could answer this question, have it tie in to some of the continuity danglers I've got hanging from 'Uncanny' and he said it was ok. This all has to do with Judd being so good at what he does and not leaving me much squirming room [laughs].

"If fans want to just read 'Uncanny' and ignore 'Exiles' that's ok- they have that option. There are some things that happen in 'Exiles' that carry into 'Uncanny' and one major announcement by one of the characters, but none of the things going on with the 'Uncanny' characters in 'Exiles' will require prior knowledge of either cast. It's a fairly straightforward action adventure story that centers around some additional points that'll be coming up in the future of 'Uncanny' but nothing that you have to specifically know from one series or the other."

Writing any comic book story requires the creative team to concoct a new environment for each story- new rules are established to a certain degree, determining the major players and the setting. But in "Exiles," the writer has to create brand new worlds in each story, with nuances that have to be different from all those previous and the sheer mechanics of writing the series may seem daunting to some. "It didn't occur to me that I had to establish so much when I started the book and it made me appreciate what Judd does so much more, because it's a lot of work setting up that world and for me, I like doing it in a visual way. I like to keep the story moving, without stopping for a lot of exposition or long bouts of talking heads and sometimes you can't avoid it- this story has some talking heads. But I try to balance it out by making it personal to the characters in a deep and meaningful way. But it's really tough and my best recommendation for anyone who tries to do it other than Judd is do it in arcs so that you can establish of it in one issue and have fun in the rest of them."

Writers on "Exiles" also face the issue of making sure their new worlds don't seem clichéd or overly wrought with artificial drama, as many comic fans are quick to criticize what's different from the norm and Austen says that while this is a problem Judd Winick faces more, as he's written more of the series, the "Uncanny X-Men" writer did think about it too. "I got to go in and dip my toe in the pond and not worry about it. I did consider it at one point when I was asked if I'd be interested in writing the book if Judd didn't come back in a year and the only way you can avoid the cliché is by approaching it the same way I approach other things in 'Uncanny' or my other work- you have to make the story not just about shock value, but about the story. It has to have meaning. It has to have an effect on the characters and it has to have consequences. If for example, you're going to have a serial rapist who rapes, oh, say Scarlet Witch in the Avengers, you can't just do that for the shock value and titillation, moving on as though nothing happened. You have to acknowledge that this is a horrible thing that happened to this woman and you have to show the aftershock, the recovery, the fact that she may be afraid of physical contact and may never be the same again. I'm dealing with some of those things in 'Uncanny' with Lorna, Polaris, as she went through a very difficult episode according to some things that happened in other books, and in a future issue of the series, we find out what happened to her exactly. There were serious consequences and ramifications to what happened to her before, so in order to get her on the right road, we have to deal with that and it won't be easy for her. But that's how you get beyond shock value- you show there's a deeper resonance with the core of the character."

"Exiles" fans will also be getting a new penciller with the addition of Clayton Henry, a new talent at Marvel Comics and someone that's caught the eye of the X-offices. "He and I had done a story together in 'X-Men Unlimited' and I was told that he was coming on 'Exiles' and that excited me," says Austen. "I think he's brilliant and will be one of the 'hot new artists' in coming years. He's a really talented kid and they needed someone after Mike McKone signed with DC- I think 'Exiles' is considered one of the lower tier Marvel series at this point. It has good sales, but it's not an 'Avengers' or 'New X-Men' in sales, so they're not worried about finding a hot name right off the bat to illustrate the series and Clayton was one of those guys they thought they could develop into a hot guy because his skills were already solid enough, but he just needed some experience. Well, he's getting it [laughs]. He's doing some fantastic stuff. I'm very happy to work with him and I really love his work a lot- he follows the script really well and gives the characters a lot of expression & emotion. I can't ask for anything more."

Speaking of emotion, there's a lot of emotion directed towards "Uncanny X-Men" these days and not all of it is positive. There's been some scathing reviews online from both fans and critics of the long running X-series, but Austen isn't deterred by the detractors whom he says are outnumbered by the fans- as evidenced by the monthly increase in sales. "Wait a minute- there's people who don't like my work?" says a sarcastic Austen. "I've had a lot of conversations about this lately because Mike Raicht has been saying that the more people complain, the higher sales go [laughs] so let them complain. Because I'm classically trained, I went to college and I studied writing and I studied drawing, draftsmanship skills, literature, storytelling, construction of a plot- at this point I can look at the 'criticism' and take it for what it's worth. If someone's actually commenting on the structure of a story or character and the mistakes that are made, the things I'm legitimately doing wrong, then I'll take it to heart and try to improve in those areas. But the kind of comments and complaints I've been seeing online lately have to do with the fans who are upset about continuity issues and character changes - characters they loved and cherished in a particular way and now feel I've changed in some irrevocable, destructive way, so now the fans have to take it personally, and they 'criticize'. But it's not legitimate criticism, it's just venting and frustration that their favorite characters have been mucked with. It's kind of like you're taking their baby and teaching them the dark arts or in some cases turning them to the Light Side- there are some fans furious about what I've done with Juggernaut. There are complaints and complaints about Juggernaut from a vocal few, but more and more people are stepping up to say that 'Juggernaut's the most interesting he's been in 40 years' and the more opposition my detractors face, the more their comments broaden from a specific complaint to, 'oh well, not only does he write Juggernaut or Polaris or Bobby terrible, he writes EVERY character terrible.' It's people who are angry and upset who don't feel like they're being heard so they become so much more vocal- I can't agree with it because so much of it is just plain wrong headed, and not real criticism at all. For example, there's been a perception online since the beginning among a small group of detractors, largely male [laughs] that I write terrible female characters, how they're all loved starved bunnies with no strength or personality. And yet I've had a tremendous increase in female readership, we get a e-mails every week from new readers, especially women who have never read comics before, tried it because of the movies, and are now hooked on Uncanny. Yet these detractors get online and get loud because Polaris is crazy, and Paige is a love-sick teenager, and suddenly I'm a misogynist? This is not legitimate criticism, it's continuity freaks going ape. New fans find the character interaction fascinating, old readers are offended because it's not what they're comfortable with. They make these claims while ignoring that at the same time I have Annie, a normal woman, telling Guardian, in a power suit, that she'll kick his ass, or I have Heather facing down some guy with a Hulk-buster gun, or Paige stands in and fights to the death against mutant wolves, or Sunfire blows a hole in an Atlantean ship, or Jennifer gives her life in The Call to save all of New York, and on and on and on. I write these tough moments for female characters but because I also give them flaws, some hard core fans see it as an overall negative, a trend in writing poor females.

"I don't want to make this sound like a criticism of Chris [Claremont, legendary X-Men writer] in any way, because he did a brilliant job of creating epic, timeless characters, particularly female characters at a time when they were usually window dressing in comics. But a lot of the criticism I get, and Grant gets, has to do with how Chris built up his female characters: he made them so strong and so flawless, so powerful, that X-Fans have become used to that. The women always won, were the most powerful, and the men were often just along for the ride. Now if you write any woman on a more human level, show weakness, fall in love, some fans get outraged and think you're destroying women characters, being sexist and misogynistic. These people probably adored Ally McBeal. Well, whatever. My wife and daughters still love me.

"Now, the debate over the Paige and Warren relationship is interesting, since they're not that far apart in my book- I've stated that she's 19 and that he's around 27, but a few loud, online fans think that's disgusting. Of course, most of these people are 18 year old computer geek shut-ins and the thought of going with an attractive 27 year old is so far-fetched to them, they pretend it's disgusting. But this book is all about taking unusual situations and exploring the facets of the human relationships within them. It's about acceptance, and the bottom line is, Paige is legal. She has a right to make up her own mind. She is a strong-minded character [laughs]. Is X-Men about acceptance and understanding or not? People with age differences get married, but when you do it in entertainment, for some reason folks get offended. Let them. It means they're emotionally involved, and committed. That's gold to a writer. I've said it before, one of the great things about the X-Men is that you can find so many characters that there's always going to be one to call your own and then when a writer comes and 'screws' with that character, you're somehow hurting them, personally. There's nothing I can do about that, if I want to write interesting stories with conflict."

On a much different topic, Austen says he'll be cutting back on the side projects this year and focusing on the comics he feels that he's "best at" and one of those is the DC Comics series "Superman: Metropolis," a series starring Jimmy Olsen. "Basically you're starting to see, that as in so many of the things I write, there's a love story at the core, and that's definitely the case with 'Metropolis.' Jimmy starts to realize that he's been focusing on his work and career for a long time, not leaving time for other things, so his forced connection with Lena makes him realize he's missing companionship. Lena begins to feel some of the same things and starts making an effort to try to change her personality, to be more amenable to Jimmy so he's less afraid of her- she's beginning to grow as an entity. In the course of her starting to grow, it becomes more bittersweet as the two have a hard time getting together and as her actions get less scary and the things she does get less freaky, she's set some things in motions, like with Killgrave, that become more freaky and strange. The city itself becomes a major player as things spiral out of control."

The writer's happy to offer teasers for the future of "Uncanny X-Men," most of which revolve around the upcoming wedding of Havok and Polaris. "The wedding's coming and some people will not be surprised, other people will be extremely surprised. There will be a lot of angry people. There will be a lot of things wrapping up during the wedding."

Another project dear to Austen's heart is "World Watch," a project he's developing with artist Tom Derenick, which he discussed exclusively with CBR News in his last interview. "It's going well and Tom's halfway through with the third issue. I still haven't decided what I'm going to do with it yet, and once I do, we'll go full steam ahead. I think it'll end up being self-published. It's one of my favorite things to work on and I'm eager for people to see it."

But before fans start drooling over future projects, Austen hopes they'll check out his "Exiles." "What makes this series different is that you have to expect the unexpected- while so many other superhero books are about returning to the status quo, this one is about turning the status quo on it's heard. If you're looking for something that gives you the unexpected and turns you on your head, this is it!"

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