Welcome to the X-Roulette! Shelfdust’s Patreon backers are asked to pick a number at random – and now I’m going to write about whichever corresponding issue of “X-Men/Uncanny X-Men” they chose! This issue was picked by Patreon backer The Electric Team, who chose number 416 for the roulette – so it’s time to check in on Chuck Austen’s X-Men.
By Steve Morris
Where Chuck Austen excels is in creating chaotic, messy characters who have a feeling of authenticity about them…. which lurks just below a distracting melodramatic surface.
When you ignore the wilder impulses of Austen, who never found a comic book editor who could rein him in, apparently, what you have left are some interesting and perhaps intersectional ideas about mutants. He doesn’t give us anything like a single-minded approach to being, let’s say, marginalised, but instead lets his characters have different, conflicting thoughts and feelings, which makes for lively conversations and unexpected quirks in their personalities.
Take Iceman, for example, who has a short sequence at the start of the issue. Whilst talking to Nightcrawler, he suddenly comes out with a rant against Stacy X, who he doesn’t feel has earned her place within the X-Men. He calls the X-Men an exclusive family and “not a club anyone can join just because they’ve got the right chromosome”, in the process obviously annoying Kurt, who he is inadvertently also excluding.
With hindsight you could perhaps write something rather clever about how Iceman’s exposure to a pro-sex character like Stacy, who is defiantly unashamed of herself or her role as a sex worker, and compare it to his own closeted nature. In the moment, however, it shows a mutant being bigoted over what an “X-Man” is, and there’s something canny about that character choice.
The X-Mansion isn’t a united cause – it’s a collection of different people who have different considerations, and it’s somewhat refreshing to see characters be imperfect and awkward. Juggernaut, shortly after, expresses how uncomfortable he is with “freak central”, suggesting he doesn’t get along with the mutants who don’t look ‘human’. At some level he’s saying this to push away Sammy Pare, who wants to be friends with him (and is looking for a father figure), but taken on face level it again shows mutants in an discordant way, which feels authentic. Being marginalised doesn’t mean you immediately live in harmony with everyone else who is marginalised.
And Juggernaut’s arc in the issue broadly is a sweet-natured one, although it doesn’t quite manage to stick the point. The duo go to Cain’s family home, which he breaks into and destroys, experiencing a few rote flashbacks as he goes. We’re meant to see how Cain’s abusive father has played into Cain’s growth into a potentially abusive older man, only for his relationship with Sammy to push him away from that path. Psychologically you can see what the comic is going for, although the hyperactive artwork attempts to derail the emotional core just as Austen’s dialogue feels simplistic. But there’s an emotional idea in there which would make a lot of sense in the hands of a more restrained creative team.
A recurring theme through the issue is of isolation and loss. Iceman has holed himself up in his room where he bitterly thinks about how the X-Men have grown bigger than him; Cyclops sadly looks over his comatose brother in the hospital; Nightcrawler explains to Stacy that Warren’s girlfriend, Psylocke, has recently died. It all feels like deliberate deconstruction of the X-Men concept as being a family.
As Iceman describes, everybody here is ultimately alone, and they each have to push their own way forward in life. There are bigots out there in the world, but these characters are equally their own worst enemies, and seeing the self-destructive nature of characters like Stacy and Juggernaut is what makes it sweet when we see them struggle to eventually get out of their own heads.
Stacy heads back to the X-Ranch and finds a photo of her with her friends, and reminisces about the good times she had there. Austen’s approach to sex work is patchy at best, but he often makes it clear that Stacy isn’t damaged, wrong, or a bad person: she’s more sex-positive than the time of publishing allowed readers to understand. Seeing her think back to the good times makes it interesting to see what comes next for her. By contrast, seeing Juggernaut think back to his childhood abuses also gives us a view of the future which gives his character some nuance. Both of them put a pause on their past and now have to look to their future, and thematically it’s really neat for Austen to tie these two characters’ respective paths within the same issue.
If he’d had better artists and and editor who could work with the psychology without indulging in the trashier drama (which feels deflating here) then you could have seen something really interesting within this run of the X-Men. As it is, yeah, this is a comic which jolts backwards and forwards, and can’t stay true to the intriguing ideas it has in mind for its wide range of characters.
Uncanny X-Men #416: Living In A Mansion
Writer: Chuck Austen
Artist: Kia Asamiya
Colorist: JD Smith
Letterer: Paul Tutrone
Steve Morris runs this site! Having previously written for sites including The Beat, ComicsAlliance, CBR and The MNT, he can be found on Twitter here. He’s a bunny.
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