Chris Claremont, the writer who reimagined the X-Men, talks to Joseph McCabe about tragic heroes, strong women and his favourite X-Movie
Few post-Silver Age comic creators are so closely identified with a team of superheroes as Chris Claremont, but then few creators have created so rich a universe as Claremont has within the graphic storytelling medium.
Starting with Uncanny X-Men #94, the writer brought an unprecedented level of characterisation to mainstream comic books, developing the “new” X-Men team introduced by Len Wein in Giant
Sized X-Men #1 and introducing a host of other characters throughout his succeeding 15 years – yes, 15 years – on the book. Yet unlike many of his American peers, Claremont’s chief influence wasn’t found in the Marvel and DC comics of the ’60s, but rather in his native homeland, the UK.
“I actually grew up as a fan and a reader of an English graphic weekly called Eagle,” says Claremont, who spent his first three years in London before his family emigrated to New York City. “My grandmother sent me them every week as a way of staying in touch. Eagle was a comic newspaper that had been founded by a minister of all things, who was a writer. His signature character was Dan Dare, Sky Pilot of the Space Waves, or Colonel Dan Dare of Space Command as he was properly known. It had some of the most brilliant and creative visual art of its day. Two pages, a front and back cover, of full photogravure colour and really cool stories. And some of the best alien villains of the time. It was great.
“They had stories about heroic British soldiers during World War II. They had stories about student athletes. They had the life of Winston Churchill, the life of Jesus. And a brilliant Ralph Bellamy series called Heroes Of Sparta, about a young Spartan who was adopted into a Roman family and became a hero of the empire. It was extremely eclectic and just plain beautiful. I loved it. That was my introduction to the concept of graphic storytelling and what you could do with comics in print.
“Marvel was something I came to when I was in high school,” Claremont continues. “I got hooked by Stan and Jack’s introduction of Galactus in
Fantastic Four #48-50, which I think I still have. That was Jack at his best, Stan at his best, the series at its best. That drew me in, so I began to look for more like it, and found Thor. That led me to Roy and John Buscema’s work on The Avengers.”
Like the Avengers, Claremont’s X-Men would offer a motley collection of champions embroiled in adventures both intimate in their emotional pull and cosmic in scope. But unlike most team books, its roster of women members grew steadily,
eventually boasting some of the most iconic female characters in comics. In addition to developing personalities for Jean Grey and Storm, Claremont created Phoenix, Emma Frost, Mystique, Rogue, Kitty Pryde, Psylocke and Jubilee.
“I guess part of it is the women I know in my life,” says Claremont. “My mother was in the RAF during the war. She was part of the crew of a radar station on the south coast during the Battle of Britain, which was, to put it mildly, a prime target. So every morning the locals from across the water would come over to visit, leave souvenirs, and then every afternoon they’d patch everything up and turn the radar back on and let command know how to properly greet the guests.
“I have close female friends who have spent their time in the heart of Africa researching disease or helping report the news from some of the most dangerous places in the world. When you know people like that, as a writer you can’t help swiping the best aspects of who they are and how they do things and apply them to characters. That said, I actually like to think I don’t treat the women as heroic icons any more or less honestly, honorably or truthfully than I do the men. My basic instinct when I took over the book was, ‘Why is it a boys’ club? Why shouldn’t there be an equal number of women who are attractive as characters and as physical entities and, from a purely mercenary standpoint, open the potential to a whole broader sweep of audience?’”
Though Claremont’s best known for his comics – writing not only X-Men but creating spin-off titles New Mutants, Excalibur, Extreme
X-Men and Wolverine – his first professional sales were short stories. “And, surprise!” he laughs, “I discovered that I was really, really good at writing comics, and I was really popular at it, and suddenly I was doing a lot of it. Sometimes steady paychecks can trump ambition… Then once X-Men took flight, once we got over the initial hump and the book really began reaching out to the audience, there was no looking back.” After proving his ability on titles such as
Daredevil and Iron Fist, Claremont began his X-Men run paired with the late Dave Cockrum, the artist who’d co-created the team introduced in
Giant-Size #1. “One of the things that X-Men had going for it that made it unique at the time was that it
My basic instinct was, ‘Why is it a boys’ club? Why shouldn’t there be an equal number of women?’
was the relaunch of a failed series, but it was a relaunch that involved a substantial rethink of the concept. The idea being that it was going from the traditional all-American agglomeration of characters – four guys and a gal – all of whom were white, all of whom were middle class, most of whom were from the north east, coming together and forming a team of heroes. Cool. They were great characters, but it was limited by the time and the society. With the new X-Men, you suddenly had Scott from the Midwest, you had Ororo, who’s from Kenya, you had Kurt, who’s a German, you had Peter Rasputin, who’s Russian, you had John Proudstar, who’s a Native American, you have Logan, who’s Canadian, as well as Banshee, who’s Irish, and Sunfire, who’s Japanese (he was there for the first two issues and then moved on). You had seven characters from different places and different cultures and different socio-economic realities.”
Claremont took each mutant apart with one eye on truth and the other on what would most appeal to readers. No better example can be found than in
X-Men’s most popular character, Wolverine. “Len’s original conception of Wolverine, that he had started with in The Hulk and carried over to X-Men, was that of a late teen, and that the claws were part of the uniform, not part of him. Yet when I looked at the pages that they gave me for the Giant-Size, when I was proofreading Len’s script and the inks (because Len was editor-in-chief of Marvel and I was associate editor, which meant I was number two), I thought, ‘Okay, we’ve got a guy who’s an officer in the Canadian Armed Forces. That’s means he’s got to be a grown-up.’ As Dave Cockrum and I kicked around the who, what and
why of Wolverine, Dave came up with the idea of, ‘What if the claws weren’t from the costume? Because if you took off the costume he’s got no weapon left. That’s pretty stupid. What makes him scary? He’s a kid with an attitude? Big deal.’
“Then Dave came up with the visual that the claws actually came out of his body. They punched out of his hand. Each time he used them he sliced his hand open, and his healing factor put him back together again. Then you have that wonderful moment – I say wonderful, but when you think about it it’s really horrific – in X-Men #99 when he cuts himself loose on the spacestation, and Banshee and Jean look at him and say, ‘The claws – they come out of your hand. They’re part of you. You never told us.’ Logan looks back at them and says, ‘You never asked.’
“To Dave and I, that defined him and set him apart from everyone else. Because it added an element of horror and tragedy to him, because ‘Holy cow! He’s got a mutant power that required him to mutilate himself every time he uses it.’ As Anna Paquin’s Rogue says to Wolverine in the first
X-Men movie, ‘Does it hurt?’ And he looks back at her and says, ‘Every time.’ That’s the moment that that inspiration created, and that became the defining element of his character.” Among such classic stories as the original
Wolverine Wolverine miniseries (pencilled by Frank Miller), the epochal Dark Dark Phoenix Phoenix Saga Saga (drawn by John Byrne), and the two-issue time-travel saga “Days Of Future Past”(Byrne again), perhaps Claremont’s mutant masterpiece is the graphic novel God God
Loves, Loves, Man Man Kills Kills (illustrated by Astro Astro City’s City’s Brent Brent Anderson). The book served as the basis for the film X2: X2: X-Men X-Men United, United, Claremont’s favourite of the mutant movies thus far.
“I thought X2 X2 was a wonderful film. I selfishly would have preferred the opportunity to see God God
Loves Loves in and of itself. I’d have preferred to see the Dark Phoenix story told more completely and richly than it regrettably turned out to be. With the end of X3 X3 what you have is a great set of revision notes. It was good, but it could and should should have been a whole lot better.
“But that’s the movies,” he adds. “Darren Aronofsky and Chris McQuarrie’s draft of the screenplay of The The Wolverine Wolverine was far, far more faithful to the original miniseries than the film turned out to be. But unfortunately he left the project fairly early, and the director that Fox found to replace him had different instincts and different interests. So the finished product, while it contained a number of foundation elements from Frank’s and my story – and the Paul Smith sequel in Uncanny, plus some aspects of Larry Hama’s work among others – was a divergent vision of the story. But it’s not my $150m.”
Curse of the mutants As for Claremont’s opinion of Marvel’s mutant comics in the years since he left them, the writer remarks, “I guess I look at it from within my time bubble as the way they were, and the way I, as a creator, think they simply should be; whereas editors, writers today view them as ‘This is the way I’m writing the character. Take it or leave it.’ Because unfortunately, much as I tried to do when I came back a couple of times on X-Men, you cannot turn back time. You cannot undo what has been done. Which is a shame. Because part of me would love to redo the whole thing and start over.”
“But that,” he says, “is why I’m not anywhere near responsible for writing or editing any of this stuff. I’m just too darn radical.”
The New Mutants channel Bohemian Rhapsody.
Dave Cockrum teaser
for Uncanny X-Men.
Introducing a new
team of X- Men!
An X- Men and Captain
Britain team- up.
An adamantium claw in the eye for this Sentinel.
Magneto takes on mutant-hating Stryker in 1982’s God Loves.
For pity’s sake, indeed Jean Grey.
That Wolverine, he’s
such a gent.
Barry Windsor-Smith art for Uncanny #198.
Something wicked this way comes!
Teenage X- Men spin- off New Mutants.