Like most fans, I’ve taken the odd year or two away from comics over my 30 years as a collector. Whether it was a lack of time or interest, it’s important to take breaks from the things we love from time to time to avoid burnout or discontent with something we otherwise enjoy. As such, I like to go back and fill in those continuity gaps from time to time, so when X-Men: Reload, a new trade from one of these unseen eras became available I leaped at the chance to further flesh out my extensive X-Men knowledge base.
I had vague memories of an era where Gambit was blind, Juggernaut was an X-Man, and Xorn’s brother mysteriously appeared in a Chinese prison, but I had never read the actual stories. With my interest piqued, I eagerly picked up X-Men: Reload and opened it up only to drop my jaw when I noticed the writer on the book. It was then that I realized, “Oh god…I’m reading a Chuck Austen book.”
Of course I had heard horror stories from my fellow reviewers, filled in character knowledge of the run on Wikis, and even seen a few YouTube videos decrying Austen’s time spent with Marvel’s merry Mutants, but nothing prepared me for what I would find in the 17 issues contained within Reload. Kicking off the book is one of the more problematic and trite arcs of the series, “She Lies with Angels.” Though it’s mostly just a poorly adapted Romeo and Juliet retread involving the Guthrie family and their longtime rivals the Cabots, it also is the peak of the ill-fated, ill-advised, and all around icky relationship between senior X-Man Angel and junior X-trainee Husk — capped off by the May-December couple having sex in the sky in front of her mother and teammates. This sequence speaks to one of the main underlying issues with the book: there’s a level of juvenile perversion and glee in both the writing and artwork that is just…for lack of a better description, icky.
It’s not confined to the intro arc, either. Yes, a stray sentinel blast shredding JUST Polaris’s top in front of a leering Wolverine (and her response) in the following issue is another pretty gross interaction, but the cheesecake shot of (I’m guessing) Siren bent over doing leg curls as new students tour the school gym is somehow even more gratuitous. Lest one think artist Salvador Larocca is too obsessed with the hetero male gaze, there’s a shirtless Bishop in the tiniest shorts this side of the ‘76 Lakers working his quads right next to her. Of course, the next panel is Storm hanging out in her underwear in an unlocked greenhouse on school orientation day, so maybe we shouldn’t harbor any illusions of intent here.
Other arcs also feature rampant misogyny (particularly toward Emma Frost, but a post-blinded Gambit’s treatment of Rogue is also pretty troubling), Havoc’s gaslighting of school nurse Annie Ghazikhanian, and the attempts to draw sympathy toward a police officer whose sole impetus for not choosing the most racist option available to him at the time was his desire to sleep with a widow who just lost her lover, and you get the impression that Austen may not have the best view of women. Sure, there is a standalone issue that seeks to give Polaris some agency in the wake of her father’s act of genocide, but she flip flops on her own point during the speech and is instantly reduced back to background player for the rest of the book, so it’s fairly ineffective.
Let’s touch on that last point, as this series follows closely on from Planet X, which served as the penultimate arc of Grant Morrison’s legendary run. As such, Austen was given the nearly insurmountable task of following a series-defining run from one of its most celebrated auteurs. Now, it’s no slight to fumble when following something as poignant and memorable as Morrison’s time with the X-Men, but Austen wasn’t done any favors by the clumsy retcons that largely defined his run. Whether it was by editorial mandate or not, the move to absolve Magneto from literally creating concentration camps (a retcon so dumb, they RE-retconned it in House of M and then again in the New Avengers Collective) and create a second Xorn because both characters were “popular” were handicaps that the author just couldn’t come back from.
Even the “Of Darkest Nights” mini-arc, a clear epitaph for the Planet X storyline that saw Magneto become a monster, struggles with making sense and relevance of the series’ place in the world following such a dark chapter. It and the two-part “A Bright New Mourning” (which itself serves as a post-script for the “Here Comes Tomorrow” arc that capped Morrison’s run) are an odd choice for the book as well, as their darker, more dour tone is starkly contrasted by the comparatively lighter issues that make up the latter half of the trade. Admittedly, even that lighter content contains the murder of a small child, but it’s easily the fifth or sixth of the book, so it’s par for the course.
Though Austen takes a firm shellacking from critics for his time with the X-Men, it has to be said that the artwork for this book is also quite bad. Salvador Larocca is a talented penciler whose work I have absolutely enjoyed in other outings, but for whatever reason, during the mid aughts, the man could not draw a human face that conveys emotion. The proportions are all crazy, the features all contorted and their looks never seem to be appropriate for the scene. Worse still, when the X-Men travel to China late in the book, some of the red army soldiers he depicts look ripped from the pages of yellow fever propaganda.
It’s really unfortunate that a talented penciller like LaRocca would turn in work that isn’t up to his level, but it’s even more unfortunate that his work was paired with the colors of Udon Studios, who faded out the colors to such a degree that I momentarily thought the copy I had was ran through the wash. Every issue takes place in a weird, muted world of pastels, grays and browns. Every character that isn’t black or blue is so pale they may as well be translucent, and the contrast this provides to the design of a character like Polaris, whose Split-Pea-Soup-colored hair looks all the more unnatural, is just terribly unflattering. Couple this with some of the worst costume designs in the X-Men history (Seriously, Angel, Husk and Polaris’ uniforms are just awful), and this is a book that’s as hard to read visually as it is thematically.
All in all, X-Men: Reload is a regrettable memento of a bygone era, gratefully forgotten. It’s a book that is poorly conceived, poorly drawn, poorly colored and is saddled with some of the worst editorial decisions in X-history (seriously, there’s even an appearance from Nightcrawler’s elseworlds daughter “Nocturne” in there). Yes, this creative team had a steep hill to climb coming out of Morrison’s time on the X-titles, but between the unlikable characters (tell me how you can enjoy Iceman in these issues), the awful plotting, the washed out color palette and overall ickiness, this is a hard book to recommend. The good news is that Brian Michael Bendis brought new and better stories shortly after this run ended on the X-books, so there are plenty of great books to read for X-fans with gap years. This…just happens to not be one of them.