Chris Claremont wrote his final issue of “Uncanny X-Men” in 1991, and he hasn’t written a comic in two and a half years, but the legendary creator’s impact continues to be felt by Marvel’s merry mutants both on the page and on the screen.
In a wide-ranging and frank discussion, Claremont spoke with CBR News about whether he wants to return to comics after finding success in the world of prose with his High Frontier Trilogy tale “First Flight,” his role in the construction of Fox’s X-Men movie franchise, the current state of Marvel’s mutant outcasts, his fight to keep Jean Grey in the ground and his thoughts on seeing his classic storylines transformed into live-action films in the soon-to-be-released “The Wolverine” and Bryan Singer’s upcoming “X-Men: Days of Future Past.”
CBR News: You haven’t had any new comic book work published for a few years now. Do you feel like that’s something that you’re going to return to again in the future?
Chris Claremont: Oh, I always like to return to it, but at the moment there seems to be no enthusiasm. Marvel seems to have its focus on other talents. Fresher talents, I guess in the opinion of the current editorial staff.
In terms of creator-owned material, the options and opportunities aren’t as fertile, I guess. It’s hard to compete with the guaranteed income one might — an artist would get from Marvel or DC, and the guarantee (especially) of after-production income. In terms of selling the pages at conventions and the like, for something that is, perhaps owned by the creators, but has no guarantee of success.
I started a project with a European publisher years ago, and we produced two volumes of a three-volume story. The first one saw print, the second one was pencilled and inked and the artist was hired by Marvel, I presume at a higher rate, so the third one never happened. So, you know, its hard to compete at that level.
You’ve done creator-owned work before, though. Was there ever talk about adapting “First Flight” into a graphic novel?
Oh, yeah, I got a waiver from Marvel back in the ’80s, and Dick Giordano bought the publication rights for “First Flight.” Indeed, we had the project up and running and I got 17 pages of absolutely gorgeous xeroxes from a European artist who did what I consider to be breathtaking work — and then he vanished. He had some sort of professional/personal conflict, and in terms of “First Flight,” never drew another page. We could never find an appropriate artist to take his place and in time the whole project just sort of lapsed into oblivion and from there into reversion.
Is your current focus on The High Frontier Trilogy and prose fueled by a belief that that type of work is more of a challenge for you, or is it due to the amount of freedom you have with it?
Well, it’s different. It’s dealing with a longer form structure. Comics — like it or not — are basically a sequence of short stories done on a monthly basis or a bi-weekly basis depending on your production schedule. And while you may end up with the cumulative equivalent of a novel over the course of — in my case — 16-17 years, it’s not anywhere near as directed, focused or contained as you would find within the pages of a manuscript.
More importantly, it’s words without pictures. The old line about a picture being worth a thousand words, well, the presumption that the average comic holds 20 pages, 5 panels a page, 100 images, well — 100,000 words. It’s different approaches to the same basic structure of telling a story.
What you lose is the immediacy; the primal immediacy of a brilliant physical image, especially if you’re as lucky as I am in terms of working with talent, the talents that I have over the years.
On the other side of the coin, prose gives you the opportunity to go into moments and characters of depth that you won’t see in a comic. It will allow you to emphasize grace notes that would have slid right by on the page, on an art page. So, it’s six of one, half dozen of the other.
The other primal side of it — in terms of working with Marvel versus working for myself — is that one product is entirely company owned and the other product is mine.
Do you feel like popular comics have kind of shied away from challenging readers with big words and complex issues? I mean, I know from reading your work, it reads differently than what more contemporary writers are doing right now in mainstream comics.
To be honest, I’m not sure. I haven’t read enough modern or current work to know what my counterparts are doing at the present time in terms of crossing storylines rather.
The unbeatable advantage I had on the X-Men — working with Dave [Cockrum] and John [Byrne] and Paul Smith, so I’m speaking primarily of the first decade, the first 8 years — is that no one had ever done it before. No one had ever put together a concept from, essentially, a fresh beginning. It wasn’t like taking over “Superman” with 30 years of history behind it. It wasn’t like taking over the “Fantastic Four,” even, with 10 years of history behind it. “Uncanny X-Men” had about 60 issues [not counting the reprints], which really, only the initial Stan [Lee] & Jack [Kirby] issues and the Roy Thomas and Neal Adams issues were the core historical basis of the team. Everything else was very much of a lesser quality.
So when you consider that Dave Cockrum and Len Wein only had “Giant-Size X-Men” #1 to establish the characters before Len decided he needed to move on…
Before Len moved on and turned the series over to me, we were working with totally untouched characters. Len had very specific views for Wolverine, but Dave and I didn’t know them. When we looked at the way he had been presented in his original appearance in “The Incredible Hulk,” and especially as Dave drew him in “Giant Size X-Men” #1…
For example, Len’s perception, Len’s feeling of the character was that he was an adolescent, you know, 18 or 19 years old. Our reaction, looking at the character, was Dave was drawing him as a much older guy. He was an officer in the Canadian Air Force, I guess, or the armed forces. Which, to me, registered as someone in — at the very least — his adulthood, [his] 20s, possibly 30s, and from there to move up to the idea of him being this sort of ageless curmudgeon seemed a natural state, a natural response.
So much of what a writer brings to a character, especially in a corporate product like the X-Men, is either defined by what’s come before, by what was established by Stan and Jack, for example, on the “Fantastic Four,” and derived from that. Or Stan and Jack on “Thor,” from which Walter [Simonson] derived so much brilliant work.
The flip side was that I was the guy who wound up doing the defining and creating a character and presenting the structure of the world from which others have derived so many stories and iterations of the characters in the far too many years since then.
The flip side is, when I’m doing my stuff, when I’m writing Nicole (Shea) in the High Frontier Trilogy, when I’m doing “The Black Dragon,” that’s my stuff. That’s my character, thats my concept. Whether I’m doing it in comics or in prose, it is my core vision that is then synergized with — if its a comic — an artist and together we produce the final product. As with John Bolton and I working on “The Black Dragon.”
Have you felt a responsibility, throughout the years and specifically when you were on X-Men, to create and empower characters that inspired teenagers who maybe thought they, too, were outcasts?
I wouldn’t know if it was inspired. It wasn’t a social responsibility sort of aspect. It was, “Who are these guys? Why are these guys? And what kind of people would fit in this reality?”
The other thing to bear in mind is that the overall perception of the canon was fundamentally different, and I mean fundamentally, in when I was writing the book to what it evolved into over the next twenty years. The X-Men, yes, they were mutants, they were feared and outcast by the world they were sworn to protect, but they were also a minority. The whole point was — in the global population — there were not more than, perhaps, a couple of hundred people with these powers. There might potentially be thousands, but we’re talking about kids growing up. None of these powers or abilities are going to manifest until you hit adolescence, which means you had at least a thirteen year grace period before anything.
You know, if you had a character who was born with “X-Men” #1, in continuity, fifteen years would have to pass before they hit Kitty’s threshold and became accessible to the team.
For me, the whole idea was that the number was small enough that they could be expunged if the world got determined about it. You know, that it was something that the Avengers, if they wanted, could deal with. That was what gave Magneto so much of his passion and focus. In terms of defending his people, they really were dancing along the edge of extinction and they really did need someone like him. The difference, and the reason that the school was so intent on remaining clandestine, was that if they were exposed, they could be destroyed.
Obviously, in Grant Morrison’s [“New X-Men”] arc, that all changed. Suddenly mutants were a vast quantity in the human environment, even after “House of M” and Wanda saying, “No more mutants.” The company has found itself — [out] of necessity — forced to find a way to repeal that edict.
Now, unfortunately for me as a reader, you have a situation where the X-Men are totally public, where they’re now merging with all the other teams. The series, the concept, has lost its uniqueness. That which made it fundamentally different from the Fantastic Four, from the Avengers, from even the Defenders — it’s now just another group of committed superheroes. Some of them work with the Avengers, some of them work with the Fantastic Four, some of the Fantastic Four work with them. It’s all one big, homogeneous agglomeration, which, for me as a reader, is not that interesting, sadly.
Do you think that’s something motivated by, I guess, marketing concerns and brand management? Is it something that’s done to sell more of these event books, like AvX and so on?
That’s an Axel [Alonso] question for, you know. He’s Editor-in-Chief. You’ll have to ask him. That’s management; I’m not management.
Shifting to the films, we’ve got the “Days of Future Past” movie coming on the horizon, and we’ve got the Wolverine movie, which seems to be heavily inspired by your initial miniseries starring the character. Which do you think is going to be more of a challenging adaptation in terms of keeping to the source material and not straying too far?
Well, the sad reality of Hollywood, especially as it relates to comic books, is that there is never a direct adaptation of source material. I think “Watchmen” was maybe the only time that that was tried.
“The Wolverine” was a project that the producer, Lauren Shuler Donner, has wanted to do ever since I’ve known her, which is going on better than fifteen years, now. She’s loved the story that Frank Miller and I did and has wanted to bring it to the screen. In the story’s original incarnation, in Christopher McQuarrie’s original screenplay, that was what it was and it was really cool. I mean, I read it; it was good.
This is when Darren Aronofsky was going to direct, and then, after last year’s Oscars, he decided he had other things that were more pressing and withdrew from the project. The new director came in wanting to bring his own writing crew on the project, wanting to express his own vision, and it has, as I understand, morphed somewhat considerably from the original story.
I believe there’s a photograph, for example, of Hugh Jackman with the bone claws. Which — that’s really cool, it looks great, but that’s not in my story. So I would assume it has morphed considerably. We’ll find out this summer.
There was a report online that Bryan Singer was talking about integrating Apocalypse into the “Days of Future Past” storyline, which would obviously be a significant evolution from the original material. Again, this is the nature of Hollywood, or as it seems to approach Marvel product. There is a tremendous amount of synergy between existing concepts and the finished film product. It’s never a straight, you know, “This week we do ‘Harry Potter 1,’ next week we do ‘Harry Potter 2,’ the week after we do ‘Harry Potter 3,'” building up to the end. Which from the point of view, purely as a writer, one’s reaction is, “Goldarn it.”
The reality of the situation is, these guys are professionals, they’re filmmakers, they presumably know what they’re doing and that’s the way it is.
Hopefully the end result will be really good and something that all involved will be proud of. Bryan and Lauren have certainly pulled together, at this point, one crackerjack cast. Not only the existing actors from “X-Men: First Class,” but pretty much all the key players from the “X-Men” films. I’m looking forward very much to seeing what comes out of it — next year. [Laughs]
As I understand, they start shooting this summer. I would suspect you’ll have a really cool presentation at San Diego.
Would you have liked more input on the adaptations? Mark Millar has a role with Fox as a kind of overseer of the studio’s Marvel movies. Is that something you would have wanted?
I was instrumental in getting Fox to produce the concept in the first place. I mean, the whole thing was ready to go into turnaround back in 1998-99. I had the serendipity or the karma to write a memo that convinced both Lauren and Fox and Bryan that this was a viable project, and this is how to approach it. I guess you could say my contributions came in a basic level, back in the beginning.
You know, I have the pride of looking in the mirror and saying, “None of this would be there if not for me” on a whole different bunch of levels. If Fox wants to utilize my ability, they know where I am. All they have to do is call — that’s their decision.
With regard to the X-Men, the comics, if you never write another X-Men story, are you at peace with that, or is there something that you really want to say? Is there one more story that you really want to get out, or more than one more story?
Oh, there’s always one more story; I mean that’s the joy of being a writer.
When I’m asked what my favorite story is, my answer is always: “‘[Uncanny] X-Men’ #94 to 279, page 11, inclusive.” Because to me, it’s one story and we took a shot at sort of closing that circle when Marvel published “X-Men Forever.” Mark Paniccia and I basically sat down and went nuts telling the stories, resolving the book as I was playing around with back in the day. It sort of went kind of crazy right off the bat, simply by killing off Logan.
There are always more stories to tell, there are always more things to play with regarding the characters. But the reality is, the X-Men that are being presented now have evolved significantly from the ones that I walked away from in 1991. I mean, the presentation of them is, some of them are older; they’ve been through whole stages of life that are different. Quite a few have died, quite a few have been maimed, the casualty list seems rather heartless to my way of thinking.
But comic book deaths don’t matter anymore. They just come back, right?
Well, that’s not the reality Dave, John, Paul, Walter and I were playing with back in the day. The whole point of killing Jean was not that it was, “Holy cow, we’ve killed Jean Grey!” It was, “Holy cow, we’ve killed Jean Grey — and this is reality. The dead don’t come back to life!”
That’s why Rachel came into the world, because we needed a red head, we needed a telepath, we needed a link with Jean, but she wasn’t ever coming back. That was why, when John and Roger Stern and company proposed the resurrection in “X-Factor,” I countered to it. The pitch I made to Jim Shooter was that we utilize her older sister, Sarah. For me, as a writer, that was a far more intriguing reality, because we’d introduce a Grey back into the team, but we would introduce a Grey who was a mutant, who hated the idea of being a mutant, who hated the idea of being an X-Man, yet accepted the responsibility. More importantly, she was uninvolved with any of the four guys.
There was no, “I am the center of Scott’s life,” which made her totally accessible emotionally to Bobby and Warren and Hank, and it allowed Scott to continue, unvarnished, with his relationship with Madeline. I mean, on one level, I was looking at it and thinking, “If you bring back Jean and Scott dumps his wife and his newborn baby, to go back and embrace his old girlfriend… ew, icky, disaster for the boy.” And so I made the pitch and Jim actually thought it was a good pitch. He thought it was a great character, he was happy for me to use the character anywhere else if I wanted to, but he had fully embraced, for commercial reasons, the resurrection story that the other guys had pitched and that was that.
And as anyone who’s read comic books the last twenty years has noticed, that has become an unfortunate defining element of the whole X-canon. It’s like Scott has been damaged goods ever since, and for all I know that could be the rationale for why he’s now, as I understand it, a villain.
Therein you see, with that last line, how far the series has evolved from the way I was looking at it, the way I was presenting it. You know, the old rule is, you can’t really go back to the way things were, because everything evolves, like it or not. And quite frankly, it’s more fun to do projects and work, over which I can fully invest my emotions and my talent without having to worry about being blindsided — for better or worse — by powers above my pay grade.
“First Flight” and “Dragon Moon” are available as Kindle e-books with more releases to come from Claremont’s Clear Mountain Creatives.