In the build to Jonathan Hickman’s takeover as Head of X, Marvel lauded four cornerstones in X-Men history that delivered the kind of imminent change House of X / Powers of X promised: 1975’s Giant-Sized X-Men #1, 1991’s X-Men #1, 1995’s Age of Apocalypse, and 2001’s New X-Men. Not only is 2001 the most recent comparison, but Grant Morrison’s takeover of the X-Men franchise was undoubtedly the most similar in terms of creator star power and uncompromised vision for changing Marvel’s merry mutants.
Of course, it’s a lot easier to see those things 15 years removed from Morrison’s final New X-Men story (his last work with Marvel), and convenient for the House of Ideas to pretend they didn’t desperately try to ignore Morrison’s contributions to X-Men from about 2004 to 2011. The reality is that immediately after the conclusion of New X-Men, Marvel announced the “X-Men Reload” era, a linewide branding featuring creative team overhauls, new series announcements (the most memorable by far is Astonishing X-Men by Joss Whedon and John Cassaday), and a “return” to the X-Men of yesteryear.
It’s a combination of interesting and sad that after the innovation of Morrison, Marvel’s broader editorial decision was “we better tap back into deep nostalgia and conservative approaches to the franchise.” Dirk Deppey writes in an essay for The Comics Journal around the time of Reload, “Marvel is currently dolling itself up to be the very spitting image of the girl its audience fell in love with as teenagers. Nostalgia is the name of the game here: The primary Direct Market readership is between 25 and 35 years of age, and is looking for the same junkie thrill they first experienced as young nerds reading comics.”
As poorly as this stands up in retrospect (we’ll get there in a second), you can almost already see the exact same reaction to a post Hickman X-Men universe when the publisher announces a “Fresh Start” and “Back to Basics” approach for the X-Men you used to love. To be a bit fair, Morrison left the X-Men and New York City in some combination of on fire and traumatized, so it’s not like it was an easy ball to keep rolling uphill. Time will tell just how nuclear Hickman approaches his story’s end (last time he ended a saga it was with epiteph’s for the Marvel and Ultimate Universes lol). Nonetheless, you can already see the cries from Marvel readership to wipe the Hickman experiment clean and get back to their X-Men.
With that backdrop in mind, what did X-Men Reload have in store? Marvel’s fresh 2020 complete collection presents Chuck Austen and Salvador Larroca’s post-Morrison works, across Uncanny X-Men, New X-Men, and X-Men. One thing the “Reload” collection doesn’t quite do justice is the size and scope of the Reload X-line during this era. There’s the grand return of Claremont to Uncanny X-Men and Excalibur (I mentioned the nostalgia factor, right?), as well as pretty interesting works like the Marvel Knights District X (David Hine and David Yardin), which presents the increasingly important origins of Mister M. In short, there’s a lot more than Austen/Larroca, but it’s these works that are among the most essential in terms of how the X-Men move on from Morrison.
Austen charges into the Reload era with a head of steam backed by “The Draco” (Aka one of the consensus worst Marvel stories of all time!) and “The Trial of The Juggernaut” (Aka that story people like to talk about because She-Hulk asks Juggernaut what he thinks about women’s rights, and the NEXT PANEL is the two of them post-coitus).
Even if you weren’t around Chuck Austen’s tenure on X-Men titles (I sure wasn’t!), it’s hard to be an X-Men fan today and not at least occasionally hear horror stories from fans who lived through it. At the start of Reload, Austen’s already nearly 30 issues and two-plus years into his run on Uncanny X-Men. In his ranking of the best X-men alternate universes, CBH writer supreme John Galati designated the Austen verse as its own standalone entry because it’s easier to process the full run as an alternate reality than accept it really happened.
Before we get into whether all that baggage is really fair in this “Reload” comics, I’ll mention broadly that Larroca’s lines and Danny Miki inks look more digitally processed than I prefer in comics, but it’s very much in line with a lot of Marvel books moving towards the mid 2000s. Larroca’s certainly gone on to produce superior works (Invincible Iron Man or even his very recent Doctor Doom come to mind), but unlike “The Draco,” any story failings here aren’t also compounded with intensely dysfunctional X-Men art.
You can’t really fault the Chuck Austen era for being wholly uninteresting. The first story here, “She Lies with Angels” (Uncanny X-Men #437 to #441), was published concurrently with Morrison and Marc Silvestri’s final story arc, “Here Comes Tomorrow,” Morrison’s riff on “Days of Future Past.” Meanwhile over in Uncanny, Austen and Larroca were taking their storytelling chances by grafting Romeo and Juliet onto a small story about the Guthrie family in Kentucky.
Unless you’re the world’s biggest fan of the Guthrie family (specifically Josh, Paige, and their mom), this deeply romance focused poor man’s Justified with mutants is quite the plodding mess. The most memorable bits stem from Austen’s absolute lack of boundaries for public displays of affection, which are hilariously absurd. Midway through the story, Angel and Paige Guthrie reconcile their romance, then fly over her family and the X-Men and literally just start making love, right up over their heads. Shortly before that, Josh and the Cabot girl he loves make out in front of her grandma, causing Grandma to faint on a hardwood floor (and of course, no one pauses to check on her).
The rival Cabot’s find battle armor out in the woods (like ya do) and murder Josh Guthrie, causing his Cabot love to drown herself with him, but then Josh heals (classic mutant) and wakes up to find *her* dead. In more gripping stories, Josh’s attempts to now end his own life (and inability to succeed due to his healing factor) would be absolutely tragic. Same goes for the rocket launched at the Guthrie’s that murders only their black family friends (Nightcrawler only has enough porting for the white Guthries which… yikes). Instead, I’m confident history will continue to only remember “She Lies With Angels” as that time Warren and Paige filmed a public porno.
In many ways, the story really captures Austen’s biggest failings: 1) the big, odd shock value moments which tend to be the things people remember from his run and 2) herky-jerky pacing!
The rest of Austen and Larroca’s “Reload” work here is deliberately an epilogue to New X-Men #150 (and again, spoilers for the Morrison runs ending will follow), so I find it inherently more engaging. Honestly, I think this is the entire reason for even putting this collection into the world. The Hickman era of X-Men is quite open about the Morrison New X-Men influence, and for readers making their way through a Marvel Unlimited X-Men binge, you really kind of need “Reload” to figure out what actually happened in Marvel after New X-Men.
The issues I found most engaging come in the story “Of Darkest Nights” (Uncanny X-Men #442 to #443). The two-part story is a “Funeral for Magneto” story, with follow up on Magneto’s twist emergence as Xorn in New X-Men! It’s interesting to consider Professor X defending Mags in light of what we know now about their grander mutant plans, post House of X. In the wake of Morrison, the Professor’s position to at least provide Erik Lehnsherr the dignity of a respectful funeral on a destroyed Genosha couldn’t be less popular. Everyone from Nick Fury to Wolverine calls him on this BS. Now, in the moment, Austen/Larroca were just delivering “Yeah but he’s my pal” Charlie, but again with retroactive continuity applied, it’s a lot more interesting to think about what’s going through Charles Xavier’s head as he plots for mutant survival with Moira, and a deceased Magneto.
Back at the funeral, Polaris shows up – after telling Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch of her recent confirmation that she, too, is Magneto’s child – and engages in a really interesting argument about the Professor vs. Magneto’s approach to mutant rights on Earth! Polaris takes the firmest pro-Magneto stance – not necessarily the terror, but the reasons driving to that point – and it’s a really compelling argument honestly. I’m not going to sit here and pretend Austen crafts a perfect speech in favor of revolution, but he’s definitely trying to tackle the issue as thoroughly as two issues of a superhero comic will allow, and I respect that.
The Austen written issues of New X-Men (aka the “Wait, Morrison is done? What’s happening?!” experience all Marvel Unlimited readers encounter) are a far less interesting epilogue’s to Morrison’s run starring Cyclops, Emma, Beast and the cuckoos. Following New X-Men #156 the series rebrands back to X-Men (I do appreciate the removal of “New” from the title when that’s clearly no longer true), and Austen and Larroca contribute X-Men #157 to #164, starting with “Day of the Atom.”
We get a quick POV visit to the X-Mansion via Josh Guthrie’s first day at the Xavier Institue, now with Scott as headmaster, which does kick off an interesting era of the Xavier Institute without Professor X heading up the facility.
The big news here, though, is the X-Men uncover Xorn! There’s a lot of talk about Marvel ignoring Morrison’s run for years, or getting it wrong, but I’ll admit I do appreciate Austen and company tackling first Magneto’s terrorism, Jean’s death, and then what the heck we’re supposed to make of Xorn.
Unfortunately, Austen et al are clearly pretty baffled by what to do with Xorn. And again: fair. Morrison’s knot of Magneto masquerading as a fairly compelling Chinese mutant with a black hole for a brain isn’t exactly the easiest puzzle. To make sense of all this, Austen invents Xorn’s twin brother, who the X-men yet again rescue from a Chinese prison
All told, the Xorn exploration is pretty unsatisfying and directionless, but the major failings here aren’t really on Austen’s head. It’s actually made *way* worse in Chris Claremont’s “reloaded” Excalibur, in which the series almost immediately brings Magneto back from his New X-Men death, declares the Xorn/Magneto an imposter (i.e. one of the twins) and so rapidly resets the long standing status quo that they’re borderline making Morrison’s barely cold run an alternate reality.
Personally, I’ll be interested to see Hickman’s take on Morrison’s Magneto, and the entire Xorn/Zorn character. How does he reconcile these stories, if he feels the need to at all? We’ve seen Xorn in Powers of X, but how do the twins fit into the Dawn of X? These questions keep the story beats of these comics compelling.
Big picture, this particular story sets up connective tissue from New X-Men back to Uncanny X-Men as the flagship, mutantkind heading into the era of “Decimation,” and Scott Summers’ leadership. All told, it’s really only for the X-heads. Or all the world’s Juggernaut fans, as Austen shows a particular fixation on bringing Cain Marko into the fold as a mostly heroic member of the team. Most readers will be perfectly well served via New X-Men, Astonishing X-Men, and House of M/Decimation.
The lessons of Reload remain compelling. It’s no great shock that history remembers the new creative blood on Astonishing X-Men fondly, and remembers the safest plays hardly at all. It’s easier said than done, but following Morrison’s New X-Men with an increasingly bold and singular vision from new creators, certainly sounds more appealing, and the same will hold true whenever X-Men is ready to reset once more in the future.