Relive Uncanny X-Men and the power of great women.
Emigrating from the UK to the United States when he was a child, Chris Claremont was made to feel like an outsider, but that would eventually feed his creativity when working on, and effectively saving, the X-Men books. During his tenure he penned a number of books that are still, to this day arguably the best in the character’s history, and some would go on to be the base for the blockbuster films such as Days Of Future Past, The Dark Phoenix Saga and his mini-series, Wolverine. We caught him as he was sitting down with a cup of tea…
Going into the X-Men book what were your goals?
Basically, to have a really good time. You have to understand this was 1975, we had no expectation that the industry would survive for much longer at that particular point in time. The X-Men reboot, when I managed to grab hold of it, gave me the opportunity to work with one of the finest creators and conceptualists in the industry, Dave Cockrum, on some of his best creations. Everything about them was, to use the clichéd phrase, virgin territory. Nothing other than the basics of who they were, what they could do and perhaps where they came from, had been established. So all of the exciting stuff, from a writer’s perspective, was just waiting to be played with. It was one of those once-in-a-lifetime moments to grab hold of something at the most unique part of its existence, utterly unlike taking over almost any other major character at Marvel or DC.
Superman had been around for a generation, the Fantastic Four had been around for almost ten years, Spider-Man the same way. All of these characters had a number of writers after their initial progenitors working on the concept, so
It was one of those oncein-a-lifetime moments to grab hold of something
there was so much established back-story that it was fun but it wasn’t unique. With the X-Men, there was nothing other than Cyclops and Professor Xavier, the uberconcept of the School for Gifted Youngsters and them being mutants, literally feared and hated by the world they are sworn to protect.
What was it like to have such a wide variety of characters to play with?
It meant that everyone always had someone to talk to. The problem with doing a solo book is that, for example, much of Peter Parker’s life was spent in monologue, because who is he going to talk to other than himself? The Fantastic Four at least had Reed, Sue and Johnny who could interact. Iron Man could talk to Jarvis, but the beauty for me of a team book was it allowed for the opportunity to play with different perspectives.
You had an African with Storm and Peter Rasputin as Colossus – having a Soviet as part of a superhero team was a radical move in those days. Nightcrawler could have easily have been a clichéd German, full with clichéd German history, except that Dave and I both decided that we didn’t want to go with the cliché, we wanted to basically try something completely different. So in a fact he became the rational, moral centre of the team. Of course there was Thunderbird, who was the American, even though he only lasted an issue and a half. And Logan, about nothing more need be said.
There was a remarkable mix of significantly contrasting characters with different attitudes and different origins and different opinions that I found irresistibly fun to play with. And basic attitudes such as how does a young man from a socialist collective deal with living and working in the country that is, for a want of a better term, his country’s sworn geopolitical adversary? How does Ororo [Storm] deal with being an outsider, not simply by being a mutant or being a woman, but being African in a nonAfrican society? The whole dichotomy of Logan constantly challenging Nightcrawler to walk down the street without using his image-inducer to hide what he really looks like just to see what would happen. To see if he has trust, if he has faith in his fellow human being, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. They are very much aware of their position as outsiders and at the same time very much playing against it to achieve a stronger, more positive end.
Before you took over with writing the character, what was your perception of Wolverine?
Well I had no perception, he had just been invented. Before his appearance in X-Men he had one appearance in The Incredible
Hulk and then Len Wein introduced him in Giant-size X-men #1. He was what he was. Dave Cockrum’s visual perception of him was very much add odds with Len’s conception. Len envisioned him as an adolescent, as a 16 or 17-year-old teenager, whereas when we first see him in Giant
size X-men # 1 he is an officer for the Canadian Armed Forces, which to my mind made him a grown-up. And the way Dave drew him totally suggested this is
not a kid, he was a grown man and we went with that. Once we decided he was a grown man we thought, “If he’s got a healing factor, how grown-up is he?” We pushed that as far I could get away.
Did you view it (similar to how you viewed the X-men team) as a blank canvas you could work on?
Oh totally. For me the key to Logan has been his past, as far as he is concerned, is done. He doesn’t really care about where he has been, he is much more interested in where he is and where he is going. He is always looking ahead, never behind. So that was basically my rational, I never wanted to do an origin for him, because once you’ve nailed something down as an origin, even if it’s the best idea imaginable at the time, come back ten years later and someone may look at it and say “Eugh, that’s dumbass”.
For me, I wanted it to be a mystery, I wanted every reader to have the opportunity to come up with their own origin for Wolverine and I would just smile politely and say, “OK, if it is good for you go with it. I have a different opinion and I’m going to go with mine, because I am writing the book.” For me, the fun of Wolverine is “What happens next?”, then as it evolved, the dichotomy between the animal and the man.
In my conception of the character my secret origin of Wolverine is that his father is Sabretooth and his mother is Seraph, the Fallen Angel who runs the Princess Bar in Madripoor, who is a short person, hence Logan’s size. He gets his size from his mother, which really pisses Sabretooth off because to him that means Wolverine is flawed. Sabretooth, as far as Sabretooth is concerned, is utter perfection; he is the epitome of whatever he is, he is the best at what he does, which is why every year on Logan’s birthday he comes and trys to kill Logan. It’s a fair fight, Logan has every opportunity to kill Sabretooth, and he fully expects that some day his kid will kill him, because that’s the way of things,
but until he does Sabretooth is going to keep coming every year. Sabretooth is a binary equation – one is or is not. He is the quintessential predator – “I will prey because that is what I do and that is what I am” – and has no regrets whatsoever.
Logan has regrets because of his mother’s influence and that’s why you have, in my conception of him, the eternal dichotomy of, if you walk in his room, half of it is an utter shitehole and the other half is the quintessential embodiment of minimalist samurai culture. It’s just two or three perfect elements: a katana, a table and something else. You look at them, and the harmony of material and space is perfection, and that’s his problem. Half of him is one, half is the other, and he wants his life to be the rational, civilised perfection, but the animal keeps clawing him back. It’s a never-ending struggle that will probably never be resolved, but that’s what makes him so much fun as a character.
Would you say that the core of the X-men isn’t saving the world or stopping the bad guy but the relationships between the characters or the team with the outside world?
That should ideally be the centre of any group enterprise. Saving the universe is a day job but what matters is what happens in the off moments, what happens between the costumed adventures, because those are the things that you carry with you for the rest of your lives.
One of the things I always wanted to do and ended up doing in special stories after the fact is to emphasise the X-Men is not a be-all and end-all; it is a point in people’s lives. Kitty Pryde comes to the X-Men as a barely-13 year old; at some part down the line she will leave and go to university and get on with the rest of her life. If you read the book on #100 you would see one team of characters; if you came back for #200 maybe you would see the same characters but maybe there would be a new one here or there. If you came back for #300 you’d see Gambit, for example. People would move on. The idea between Scott [Cyclops] and Madeline Pryor was that he was going to meet his true love, Madeline, fall in love, get married and get on with the rest of his life. He’d be available to come back to the team on special events, which would of course be really cool, unique stories, but for the most part he would be doing what real people do, which is you get a job, you raise a family and you ideally live happily ever after.
My flaw as a writer, as a creator of company-owned stories, is that for certain characters and circumstances I always had endgames. Corporations don’t like end games because that deprives them of an exploitable character, so there in lies a primal conflict that the creator does not win. Ever.
Did you have a beginning, middle and end in mind when you started working on X-Men?
I assumed that I would run out of stories at some point but at each point I thought I would, I never did. I figured when I had done it for 15 years, I’ll go to 20 and then I’ll retire. But I figured if I got to 20 and I was still going strong I could stick around for 25. Unfortunately the company had other ideas because if I’m writing it, they can’t offer it to Joss [Whedon] for example. While the fanboy in me understands the rational – “Joss Whedon is very cool, let’s give him the X-Men” – I was pissed because I really wanted to play with the
characters. And what has he [Joss] ever done anyway?
Marvel or Disney as a company has a different perspective on the properties than someone like me, and I was the anomaly, as most creators, with very rare exception, will only hang around a concept or character for three or four years; they’ll end their run and move on or something interesting will catch their eye. With me I just kept coming up with new stuff because it was fun. X-men began New Mutants, which began Excalibur because it was an opportunity to work with brilliant artists, but more importantly it was an opportunity to play with all these cool people I invented and I wanted to find out what happened next.
You introduced arguably the most interesting and memorable female characters in comics. Was that something you wanted to do when taking over the book?
I wanted to tell stories about people who reminded me of people I knew, and I’ve had the fortune of knowing some really cool people, starting with my Mum. When she was a kid she had a fight with her mum, went out and ended up joining the RAF because she liked the uniform. Only after the fact did she discover that they wouldn’t let her fly because women weren’t supposed to, men did that, which really pissed her off, so she ended up on a radar station in Dover through the Blitz.
As the story goes she made Sergeant three times and got busted four, which suggested she had a good war. When my parents immigrated my mother ended up getting a pilots licence and she’s been a pilot now for the better part of a halfcentury if not more. But the thing is I have female friends who are war correspondents, I have friends who are part of the council for foreign relations, one of whom is a Pulitzer Prize-winning specialist in Ebola who back in the day if she heard of an outbreak in Africa, would grab her MOPP [Mission Oriented Protective Posture] suit and head for the country to find out what was going on. To know people like that, how could you not try to find ways to create characters to reflect aspects of their lives and their characters just like I would for men?
If for no other reason than for a purely solipsistic visual standpoint, female characters can be a much more enticing visual on the page, but more importantly
Claremont’s storylines saw the team turn against itself at times
It’s estimated that Claremont has sold 7.5 million comics to date
Claremont is credited with the creation of some of the best female characters of all time
Claremont wrote varied and interesting female characters
His favourite thing about Wolverine is his mysterious past