Chatting With Chris Claremont Part 1: Writing For The X-Men’s 50th, Jean Grey In The Present, Superman And More
50 years ago Stan Lee and Jack Kirby introduced the world to the X-Men. Since we were first introduced to Charles Xavier and his school for gifted youngsters, many writers have come and gone through the years. One writer that stayed longer than anyone else to date was Chris Claremont. From 1975-1991 Claremont steered the X-Men ship and helped revitalize the series when it was close to cancellation. The writer helped define some of the most popular characters, but he also had a hand in creating fan-favorites like Rogue, Psylocke, Shadowcat, Phoenix, Mystique, Emma Frost, Sabretooth, Mister Sinister, and Gambit to name just a few. With such a prolific run on X-Men, and this being the 50th anniversary and all, it’s the perfect time to pick Claremont‘s brain. I was lucky enough to get the chance to do just that late last week. In the first part of our two part interview we talk about his lengthy run on the title, some stories and ideas that stands out to him, and his thoughts on current comics. Mr. Claremont also revealed a few details about the new story he’s writing for X-Men: Gold #1 out this November to celebrate the X-Men‘s milestone. Old school X-Men fans should be pretty excited about what he has planned. Read on for more!
This is the X-Men’s 50th anniversary year. What does that mean to you, especially since 17 years of those are strongly tied to yourself?
The disconcerting passage of time I guess. No, you know the presumption of how one looks at things when you start off and…I mean Dave Cockrum and I considered ourselves fortunate to get past issue #100. I don’t think either of us considered the series would be around 40 years later or that I would last as long as I did.
You’ve written a lot of great X-Men stories. Is there one that has become a big success that surprised you? By that I mean has there been one that surprised you as to how big it has become over the years or how much it has resonated with fans?
I don’t think it would apply to ONE. Obviously the Phoenix Saga had an extraordinary impact partly because of the empathy we built up between the readers and the character in the person of Jean Grey and partly because it was THE most unexpected ending of all. In truth surprising even to the creators since it was Jim Shooter’s intersession that got me to seize the event and do what had initially been felt to be inconceivable, which is to make her pay an actual price. Basically inject a level of primal reality into what we were initially viewing as a comic book trope: no matter what the hero does they effectively get away with it in the end. In our case it was that Jean quote unquote paid for her crime, they took away the power of Phoenix, but she lived to be happily ever after. Jim, to his credit, basically told us ‘No you can’t commit global genocide and get off with a slap on the wrist’ since everyone knows taking away someone’s powers never lasts forever. So I decided she should pay the ultimate price and die, hoping that we could get away with the concept that death in comics could last forever. Foolishly of course I was wrong, but there you are. I was young and impulsive. We were hoping to establish a new benchmark.
Can you say anything about this November’s X-Men: Gold #1? The solicitations say you are presenting an untold story of the X-Men with Cyclops, Nightcrawler, Wolverine, Colossus, Kitty, and Rogue. This will be the first comic you’ve written in a little while. Could you tease us with anything about that?
It’s 20 pages and Bob McLeod is doing a brilliant job with the art. Thus far I’ve only seen the pencils, but he’s doing the inks so it should look absolutely gorgeous. Tom Orzechowski is lettering it. So in effect we’re getting a classic creative team back together again. It takes place in continuity between issues #173 and #174 so we’re right at the aftermath of the abortive wedding of Wolverine and Mariko Yashida and about to leap full force into the resurrection of Dark Phoenix. Because I have absolutely no awareness of or interest in promoting any sort of film, the fact that the adversaries are Sentinels is purely coincidental. [Laughs] And if you believe that etc. etc.
That does sound pretty exciting.
I would hope so. Bob has drawn the first 17 pages and they look pretty darn cool.
Could this signal your return to regular Marvel comics?
To my own perspective I’ve never left Marvel the last few years. I’m under contract, so my commitment to them as a comic book writer is exclusive. The decision on whether or not to use me is purely a function of the editors. I guess you’ll have to ask Nick Lowe and Axel Alonso and whoever and see what their position is and take it from there.
Do you still keep up with current comics though? Whether it be X-Men or anything else?
No. I actually haven’t read a comic in better than 3 years because there’s no reason to. Reading them is a function of research in staying current with characters and continuity. If I’m not involved or anything at this point, it’s not really…I guess, my cup of tea. I file work away so I can get it when I need it, but I haven’t stayed current. There are too many other things to do.
That’s a fair point. I want to ask you this if you’re willing to answer it: the original X-Men are back in the present do to some time hopping and Jean Grey is back in play…
What are we making reference to here?
Just your ideas and thoughts on Jean Grey being back in current Marvel.
Her younger self is. The original X-Men team time traveled to the present and Brian Michael Bendis is using them in some current storylines.
I find that weird. If the Marvel universe is only 7 years old, as Axel recently announced I think, now the universe is currently post-Millennium how can you have characters that were presented in 1963 running around in the present day? Even if you accept the reality that the X-Men you are seeing…well actually you would be accepting the reality that the X-Men who are moving through time are coming to the “present” from a post-9/11 world since the X-Men came about in 2007-2010 basically. That immediately kind of suggests a whole plethora of relationship, personal and socio-political, that the world of 2013 is not significantly different from the world of 2005 or 2006. Whereas if you’re looking at it that they’re coming from the world of 1963, then you’re talking an absolutely significant difference. But then if they’re coming from the world of 1963, then we are not looking at the current characters, younger version of the current characters, we’re now talking about an alternate iteration or alternate dimension or earth. In the Marvel pantheon that is not invalid. All you have to do is look at Captain Britain and the Captain Britain Corps to rationalize that.
It’s one of those things where life gets very confusing. I mean back in the day when Marv [Wolfman] was doing his Crisis series, Crisis on Infinite Earths, and it came to the end and he finished it I thought it was quite brilliant. When I saw the last issue I had this idea all my own: If it had been me, if I had carte blanche and the opportunity to stage the ending, I would have had it happen where the final conflict did not kill off Supergirl. You go back 4 or 5 issues and it’s not Superman coming out holding the body of Supergirl, it’s Supergirl coming out holding the body of Clark of Superman. The act 2 climax would be the death of Superman and the last four issues would be ‘Holy crap! What do we do now? We’ve just killed one of the foundation trilogy of DC Comics and they’re saying it’s legit!’ Then you get to the very end of the set-up for the relaunch of Superman and all the rest of it, the dust settles and everything is resolved. Suddenly the Superman of Earth-Two comes out. It’s the elderly Jerry Seigel/Joel Shuster character, you know married Lois Lane after the war and just aged naturally into the 80s. He looks around and they all think “Great, we’ve got a Superman who is an old geezer.” He then reaches up and says “You don’t get it” as he starts to wipe off the make-up. You start to realize that he is just as tall, just as handsome, just as young, and just as primal as the original Superman we’ve been reading all these years. ’I’m not human. I don’t age like you, I’m Superman.’ The rational is that he aged so his friends would not feel bad as they got older and he didn’t. He wanted to grow old, or at least look like he grew old with them and after they died he would deal with it. He would step forward, and suddenly you would come back with John Bryne taking over the production responsibilities of, you know ‘YOU’VE READ DARK KNIGHT. YOU’VE READ THE X-MEN. BUT IN THE BEGINNING THERE WAS THE ONE, THE ONLY, THE ORIGINAL SUPERMAN!’ That would be what would launch Superman into the 90s. The secondary rational for doing it is that this Superman would be totally different. He would look exactly like the old Superman, but you could redefine his civilian identity. Would Clark Kent be a reporter for The Daily Planet? Maybe he would go and do something else. Would he even be Clark Kent? More importantly, what are his relationships with everyone around him? He’d have to start making his friends all over again. How does he deal with Batman? How does he deal with Diana? How does he deal with Lois? In his past he watched her die. How does he deal with Lana Lang if she’s still around?
Suddenly you have all of the expected tropes presented in a wholly fresh perspective where anything can happen. You don’t have to be locked into a pre-existing, modern continuity and you take it from there. To me as a writer looking at that formula, it would have been absolutely fun. In turn, that was the approach I brought to the X-Men after Jean’s death. That was why when Jim told me that John and company had created X-Factor and were going to bring together the original team, including a resurrected Jean, A.) I objected passionately because we had just introduced Rachael to fill that gap and it was going to complicate things to no end B.) It basically emasculated the most primal and memorable story that the X-Men had ever done. It would strip the series and the line of the dramatic tension we had established since, which was ‘hell, if we kill Jean we can kill off anybody. They’re all totally at risk.’
My counterpoint was that Jean has a big sister, Sara. Why not bring her into the series? Now you have a Grey. That’s good. She’s beautiful and available. More importantly, she’s a totally fresh character in the mix. If you bring back Jean, all you’re doing is reestablishing the Scott/Jean relationship. By the way Scott is married and has a child. It automatically starts the new series with a fundamental moral conflict and a bad taste in your mouth. If your goal is to resurrect the relationship, you have to destroy a marriage to do it. There’s no way Scott comes out of that looking like a hero. That’s exactly what happened. This way, my argument to Jim was, suddenly Sara is in play with everybody else. Scott’s married. He’s got Madelyne. He’s got a child. Scott is off the romance card for the near future. That opens up opportunities for Bobby, for Hank, for Warren that weren’t there before. Heck, it’s there for Prof. X if he’s feeling that kinkily at the time. To me that was an ideal way to give the new series a primal link with the X-continuity but to go off on its own path and come up with something totally new and totally unexpected. Jim, to his credit, liked the idea but being a boss and thinking of the totality of the commercial potential, he decided to go with the pitch for X-Factor as we knew it. The rest as they say is history. That in a sense sort of epitomizes my approach with a series then and now, which is to find the courses of action everyone expects and possibly turn them 90 degrees and see if the different iteration can take everyone by surprise and take the character and the books in different, fresh, exciting, unexpected directions.
To just bookend what I was saying, time travel has really been redefined and reshaped for the better part of a year with Marvel. A lot of the questions you were raising are a lot of questions readers are asking. Obviously there’s a lot to it, but everything is still in flux and very much in play.
Hopefully everyone knows what they are doing and it will all work out positively for creators and readers alike as both a commercial object and a creative one. Like I said, you have an advantage over me. This is where my lack of familiarity trips me up.
Tomorrow we will have the second and final installment of our chat with Chris Claremont. We talked about comics this time, but Tuesday we’ll get into the X-Men films and what he thinks about some upcoming comic book movies. Of course we talk about Days of Future Past too. It was incredibly interesting to hear Mr. Claremont talk about time travel in comics and what he thinks about Jean Grey being back in the present in the current X-Men stories. I tried my best to explain the stories as best I could, but the writer was talking more in broad terms what any form of Jean being back in play would mean. Jumping from X-Men to Crisis on Infinite Earths was a pleasant surprise. We’ve heard about Claremont‘s plans for the story before, but he went into a lot more detail than we’ve previously seen. What do you think about Claremont‘s comments?