The following interview contains Strong Language
"Uncanny X-Men" is a comics title writers love to get their hands on and Chuck Austen is no different. It's a high profile position that comes with many pressures, but Austen seems to take it all in stride. Since the writer took over the writing chores on that venerable Marvel title there's been a buzz resonating through fandom. His work has been well received by fans and critics alike, many whom compare it to the early work of Chris Claremont on his now classic run. As a result, sales are up and the future is as bright as ever for "Uncanny X-Men" and Chuck Austen. CBR News spoke extensively with Austen about his plans for "Uncanny X-Men" and the differences in his approach as compared to other writers.
"'Uncanny X-Men' is the original X-Men title, the one that introduced Professor Xavier, the one that introduced Cyclops, Angel, Nightcrawler, Iceman, Beast, Jean Grey and all the mainstays," says Austen of his series and how it differentiates from the other X-comics. "It's also where Wolverine first gained popularity, so there's a long and varied history with this book. Since my taking over, the main thrust of the series has been one of mutant and human understanding and cooperation. My belief is that the core theme of the series is about people finding a way to work together for the mutual benefit of mankind and the world around us. Of course, the core theme tends to be a metaphor for racism, homophobia, and whatever oppressions anyone has ever experienced. My stories tend to be about that theme, and how we need to learn to work toward unity.
"The main characters are, or soon will be, Northstar, Havok, Nightcrawler, Archangel, Iceman, Husk, Stacy X and Juggernaut. I chose each cast member for the chemistry they bring to the team. Northstar is an arrogant, confident, homosexual who is brash and commanding. Havok is Cyclops' brother, and has some interesting history behind him in that he's been through the ringer emotionally, and is due for some changes and growing up. Nightcrawler is a demon-looking fellow who has been studying for the priesthood, and has recently had a crisis of faith. Archangel is wealthy, handsome, and has the world on a string. He has no super powers, but puts himself in danger, constantly. He also has an emotional hole inside himself that he hasn't faced because he's never had to. Iceman is amazingly powerful, but highly immature. He is also one of the five original students and has some attitude about that. Husk is a new member, formerly of Gen X [a reference to junior X-Men team], who is an overachiever and tries to overcompensate for her 'hick' upbringing. Stacy X is a former prostitute, and a mystery member no one knows anything about. And Juggernaut, one of my favorite new additions, is Xavier's step-brother, and hates Charles' guts."
"Throw them all in a room together, and watch the sparks fly!"
Now one might expect that Austen became the writer of "Uncanny X-Men," one of the industry's top selling comics, through a complex series of trials and auditions, but he explains that it was a matter of being at the right place at the right time. "It was a brilliant stroke of luck," admits the scribe. "I had just done a 2 part arc in 'Ultimate X-Men' while Mark Millar was taken ill, and Mark Powers and Pete Franco and I had such a great time working together, we were looking for ways to continue the relationship. Then Casey decided to step aside, and they asked me to pitch for the series. For some strange reason, they decided to go with me, and I'm just trying to make the most of it. I'm sticking around as long as Marvel will have me. I love writing this book, more than anything else I'm writing at the moment. It's pure bliss. And fortunately for me, it seems to be selling."
Austen also hopes that he stays around for some time, because he has already started laying the foundation for some long-term and far-reaching stories. "I have lots of long-term plans for the series, and in fact, some of the seeds I've sown don't pay off for another couple of years, so I'm in for the long haul. Mike Marts and I were just discussing arcs going into 2004, so I think they plan to keep me around for a while, too."
The appeal of working on "Uncanny X-Men" isn't just the nice paycheck- the series touches Austen on a deeper level. "The heart inside 'Uncanny X-Men' is relationships and family, and how those units work together and against one another. And because the X-Men are here to help people, mutant and human alike, they're more than just superheroes who go out looking for a fight. Things are more personal to them, and they get more involved. They also do things that don't fall into the 'see bad-guy, punch bad-guy, go home' school of writing. I love variety, and I love soap opera. I get both with the X-Men."
This is also why Austen has been hammering home the themes of family and personal responsibility with the "Hope" story arc and follow up issues in "Uncanny X-Men." "I'm a strong proponent of 'personal responsibility,' and a firm believer in non-traditional family. I come from a divorced home, and I've married into a divorced family. I come from an abusive upbringing, and I'm trying to put an end to that personal violence in my own life. There's a tendency to always blame other people, or extenuating circumstances for our problems. Especially to blame our parents. And yes, sometimes they deserve blame for things they did. But there comes a point where you're out from under their thumb and it's time to take responsibility for your life and actions and move on. Blame becomes an abdication of personal responsibility, and an excuse to continue to act out and behave poorly, and sometimes be abusive to others. It's wrong. At some point it's no one's fault but your own. Get over it. Move on, and help others do the same.
"The idea of non-traditional family as a powerful positive force is deeply important to me, especially to show the Pat Robertson's of the world that you can come from a broken home and still contribute. Still be a positive influence on society. So much time is spent pointing out lax morals and poor family values as leading to terrible living conditions for children. Idiots like Pat Robertson and others make us children of divorce feel bad, and wrong for being here. We can't be as good as kids whose parents were around. That's bullshit.
"This is why Xavier is so important to me, and the theme of this book. Someone like Xavier represents a step up from anyone out there who treats their children badly. He's Father Flannagan and Boy's Town. He offers an option, a better option, to what is often called the 'core family unit.' Just because you're genetically linked doesn't make you a better parent. It just makes you legally responsible, not actually responsible.
"Man, I love the X-Men."
It's no secret that Austen also loves simply exploring the relationships between the characters in "Uncanny X-Men" and that's been one of the things that fans has responded to with the most favorable compliments. "I think people find it interesting because that's what makes the characters human, and therefore people we can relate to. Understand, seeing that these people are a lot like us: jealous, funny, vindictive, angry, happy, loving, kind ... generous, whatever, all makes them more like people we could be. More like people we are. It's hard to relate to an album cover. We might all want to be that cool, or feel that cool, but no one can relate to it on a personal level.
"And soap opera is interesting. Everyone wants to talk about who's sleeping with whom, who's cheating on whom. It's like 'Beverly Hills 90210.' You're a part of the coolest clique in town, and they're no better than you. You could be one of them. What draws people to the X-Men and keeps them there is that they're human, not Homo-Superior. We could be them, if we had powers. They're not above us, or better than us, they ARE us."
The tricky part of portraying the character relations is balancing all that with action, a challenge that Austen relishes but admits that he finds a bit daunting too. "It's tough. Part of me wants to write only the character stuff, but I'm known for my action sequences, so I can never let that stuff drift too far off. So action will always be sprinkled with the character interaction. That's the fun, the spark of the series. I think it was missing under Casey's run, he apparently didn't like writing it, which is fine, but I love that I was allowed to bring it back. Readers love the interaction as much or more than the action. What happened to so-and-so? Who's interested in whom? What about dead girlfriends? And I LOVE that stuff.
"That, to me, is what makes the X-Men run. It's the relationships, the humanity, and the positive outlook for humanity. Mike marts and I were just talking about this. It's why I like writing X-Men more than say, 'War Machine.' I love the variety, and being able to do something like 'War Machine,' but X-Men is unique. It's about a positive outlook. Acceptance. Love. And cool powers and sexy people."
The average workday on "Uncanny X-Men" is a dream come true, says Austen, and the positive aspects of the series easily outweigh the bad. "Easiest parts? The characters and their relationships. I love writing dialogue and interplay amongst the characters. Hardest? The continuity. 'Oh you can't do that because so-and-so was in another dimension fighting Fraggle Rock and they were in someone else's body.' That stuff drives me nuts. And a lot of it was sooooo poorly thought out and executed, and I'm stuck with it, because the long-term fans expect you to be true to the older material that they spent their hard earned dollars on."
The depth and complexity of X-Men continuity, with all their various incarnations, does make it difficult for an X-Men writer and raises a big question: does Austen approach them as comic book icons, as the eternal outcasts, as normal comic book characters with long histories or a combination of the three? "A combination of the last two," answers Austen. "You can't think of them as inviolable icons or you'll freeze up and never produce anything worthwhile. They have to be people in your head. Real, breathing, fallible, loving, hating people. As eternal outcasts? Sure, but only in the "normal" world. Inside the walls of Xavier's, they are loved and welcome. Always. Even Juggernaut. Xavier isn't prejudiced, and he makes everyone feel safe and comfortable. Personal happiness, however, is up to the individual. Normal comic book characters with long histories? This is the X-Men, they're all about the history, the continuity. Fans will eat you for breakfast if you don't play into that."
With this approach in mind, Austen has tackled the X-Men in a way that has, as mentioned, resonated with fans deeply but the writers is hesitant to describe how he feels the series has matured under his guidance. "It's now got a sense of humor," laughs Austen. "I don't know. That's a tough question to answer without sounding more arrogant than I already do (laughs). I think that's more for the fans and readers to decide."
For any writer of "Uncanny X-Men," one of the biggest joys of writing the X-Men is choosing from the vast legion of mutants to assemble a team of characters that best represents one's goals for their work on the series. It can also be a major pain and writers need to have a clear vision of why they have picked each character, something Austen has in spades. "For me, the big thing with the characters I have, is the potential they have, and the lack of love they've been given, creatively. I've heard from a lot of fans 'Well, I don't know if I'm going to read 'Uncanny' because they're all the X characters I like the least.' To me, that's great. Because I can take these characters and run with them, make them into something memorable and powerful. My goal is to get to the end of this and have people say: 'Wow. I just realized, these have become my favorite characters.' And there's so much potential in all of them.
"Archangel is great to me because he has no powers, but he goes out and does this, day-in, day-out. He can die, and in fact, has since I took over, and has been revived. He's also a symbol of hope that can cross over into the human world. He's a thing of beauty and 'a true angel.' Warren has limitless potential, for me, and I've got some big ideas for him. I love the character.
"Kurt, aka Nightcrawler, is a personal favorite. He's the 'glass is half full' guy. He's had a crap hand dealt to him, he's blue and furry and looks like a demon, and he's funny, and charming and nice and takes what lemons life gives him and makes wine. How can you not love him?
"Northstar is a great character with a ton of potential. Conflicted, arrogant, mean at times, but noble in his own way. He's got some shining moments coming. Already has, in issue #414.
"Iceman? The most underused character ever created in the X-iverse. What can't I do with him?
"Havok. He's the closest to my alter ego in the book. He has a lot of potential that has never been realized, and it's about to be.
"Stacy X? Mystery and conflict rolled into one sexy package. How perfect is that?
"Husk? Limitless potential, and sooooo cute.
"Juggernaut? What can I say, he's becoming my favorite character to dialogue in the series, very quickly. I think he's going to be a breakout character."
Astute X-fans will instantly recognize Alex Summers, AKA Havok, as a pretty surprising member to be included in Austen's team as he was a fan-favorite character whom many thought would be stuck in limbo. But with the writer's enthusiasm for Havok, one might say his return was inevitable and couldn't have come at a better time. "All I'll say is he will eventually come out of the coma," says Austen of Alex's return. "Havok is an old favorite of mine, since back in the Neal Adams days. But the developments recently made him much more interesting to me than even that older stuff. Things that happened to him in 'Mutant X' [the Havok solo series, not to be confused with the television series of no direct relation] will make him one of the more fun, and unexpected characters in the series. Like I said, he's the closest to my alter ego in the book."
The cast of "Uncanny X-Men" isn't always going to be limited to the characters that Austen has chosen, as the other two core series, "X-Treme X-Men" and "New X-Men," contain characters that will sometimes guest star in "Uncanny." "I'm limited," says Austen of mutants from those books appearing in his. "I've been asked to leave Chris' and Grant's characters alone, for the most part, and I agree that I should, and that they should respect my characters. I got special dispensation to use some of Grant's characters, most notably Cyclops, occasionally, as long as I don't significantly alter them. But I needed Cyclops for when Havok came back. Cyclops is his brother. If my brother returned from the dead, I'd be there. Bet on it. And Grant has used Warren. Chris has used Nightcrawler. It's all fine, but we need to respect one another's turf. I can't go making Rogue and Gambit get married, any more than Chris can kill of Annie, the school nurse."
One of the best aspects of working on "Uncanny X-Men" so far for Austen has been the tremendous response to his work. "The reaction has been unexpectedly phenomenal," exclaims Austen. "Joe Quesada called to tell me he thought 414, the Northstar introduction story was one of the best X-Men stories he's ever read. I get tons of e-mail, and people forward me reviews, all positive, but one. My editors, Mike Marts and Mike Raicht both tell me how much they feel like I've gotten 'Uncanny' back to where it should have been years ago. I'm a little surprised by it all. I hoped people would like it, but it's such a crap shoot with the X-Men. It's like trying to put a face to God. Everyone's got an opinion as to how it should look an has no qualms letting you know when you're off."
But Austen isn't one to take all the credit- he knows that the artists are a big part of his success too. From Ron Garney to Sean Phillips and to upcoming Japanese superstar Kia Asamiya "I had nothing to do with them coming on board," says the scribe when asked how he attracted such talent. "That was all the Mikes. I love working with those guys. I think the artists are tremendous and I couldn't be happier, but I had nothing to do with them coming on board. As far as 'the next level?' I think Kia will definitely give a tremendous shot in the arm to the series. He's just incredible. I'm damn lucky to have him. And he's going to have fans outside our normal, mainstream. That's got me REALLY excited."
For those fans who are curious as to which X-Men stories ranks as Austen's favorites, he's more than happy to appease your curiousity. "'Days of Future Past.' The Jean Grey saga, although recent events have ruined those stories for me. Jean Grey is not dead and Cyclops is. I was a big fan through the Claremont Byrne, Claremont Cockrum era, but not much beyond that. I was a huge fan until John Byrne left, and then I moved on to other things."
With Austen's experience in the comic book industry, he's developed a unique perspective on things and has his own ideas on how to build a bigger readership. "Mostly, distribution. Kids will read comics if they have access to them. Comic shops are too few and far between. We need to find a way to reach those kids, those adults, those readers, who don't think about comics unless they're right n front of them. Right now, with the new wave of writers and creators making the books easily accessible, contemporary and fun, distribution is the last nut to crack."
Interestingly enough, Austen says he's "iffy" on the future of the industry. "We've gone from millions in sales to a hit being 120,000 copies," explains the writer. "That's startling, when you just look at the numbers. Of course, Trades are up in sales, and new, young readers are getting into the Ultimates line. We're on the cusp right now of real change. It won't come, as so many people hope it will, from the next X movie, or the Incredible Hulk by Ang Lee, or from Batman or Superman movies. That's good for movies and a minor shot in the arm for comics. It's only going to come when we have kiosks at train stations selling 100,000 copies a week to commuters at one end who throw them away at the other, like they do in Japan."
No matter his perspective on the industry or predictions for the future, Austen says he's enjoying a lot of comic books right now and that's the most important thing to him. "I'm enjoying a lot, which is a big change, for me. I read anything Geoff Johns writes. Anything Brian Bendis writes. Anything Bruce Jones writes. I like a lot of the new guys, like Brian Vaughn and others. JMS 'Amazing Spider-Man' is a solid favorite of mine. Mark Waid's 'Fantastic Four' is the first time I've ever enjoyed the 'Fantastic Four.' Seriously. I was never into Kirby. That's high on my list at the moment. It's fun, the dialogue is great, and natural, and everything's unexpected. I like things that surprise me, these days. On the indie side? I loved 'Goodbye Chunky Rice.' I love Andi Watson's stuff. There's not as much there that gets me excited, these days. Scott Morse."
If you're looking for a concrete schedule of Austen's upcoming projects, the last person to ask is Austen- even he doesn't know what the future holds. "Who knows? With 'Uncanny X-Men' being successful, I'm getting a lot of offers. I have 'The Call' regular series from Marvel. 'Metropolis' from DC. I'm writing 2 'X-Men' scripts a month, just so they can backlog. And I just got an offer this morning that I can't talk about yet, but I'm hoping it pans out. It's a character I love and have always wanted to do. On top of that, a friend of mine and I are working on a movie together, and I'm keeping a toe in Hollywood and hoping the sharks don't bite it off."
Even the schedule for "Uncanny X-Men" is up in the air, with fans being surprised at the seemingly biweekly schedule of the series recently. "We've discussed bi-weekly," laughs Austen. "We'll see. I'd love that. I prefer more stories to less, and the X-Men have so many characters, it's hard to fit in everything you want to do in one month. I'm fast because I've wanted to do this for twenty years, and I've finally been given the chance. The floodgates are open! In all seriousness, though, I just learned storytelling in all it's forms for many years. Lot's of writing classes, lots of books on the subject. I also spent a lot of time doing storyboards on tight deadlines, so I know visual storytelling upside down. This makes it fast and easy for me to write a script. But 4 a month, once a week, is the limit. I've got room for one more book, and I'm done for a while."
Before Austen rushes back to his office to "Uncanny X-Men" a daily publication, he thanks the fans for their support and adds, "Thanks for reading this interview!"