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An Interview with Chris Claremont, Part I (of V)

All this week, to celebrate the release of X-Men: Days of Future Past, we’re publishing a serialised interview that we conducted with the wonderful Chris Claremont back in February for publication in a British comic book magazine. Many thanks to Mr. Claremont for taking the time to talk to us, and also to Adam Walsh for allowing us to publish this.

Chris Claremont’s studio looks a lot like you might expect.

Joining me online for a conversation about his work, the webcam allows me a glimpse of Claremont’s working area. As befits the man who wrote Uncanny X-Men (along with quite a few spin-offs and tie-ins) for seventeen years, the place is overflowing – with what look like notes and sketches, stories and ideas.

Some of these many papers are filed away neatly into boxes, some are sorted into giant stacks, some threaten to break free and consume their creator whole. Much like Claremont’s imagination and energy, these pieces of paper seem infinite – far too much to be contained in the space afforded.

It isn’t only Claremont’s study that evokes his creative process. He talks in a style familiar to anybody who has ever read any of his work. Answering the onslaught of questions, Claremont remains articulate and clever – often answering with wry wit and a knowing smile.

Subjects mentioned in passing become vitally important later on. Stories go in directions you don’t expect. What starts as a joke ends with an honest insight; what begins as profound statement ends with a clever punchline.

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Even if the reader doesn’t recognise the name Chris Claremont, his handiwork should be familiar. Writing Uncanny X-Men from 1975 through to 1991, the writer shaped the franchise. He created many of the iconic characters associated with franchise (Kitty Pryde, Jubilee, Psylocke, Emma Frost), and defined many more (Wolverine, Storm, Nightcrawler, Magneto).

Was any of that on Claremont’s mind when he took over Uncanny X-Men from writer Len Wein? Did he have any idea that the run would become so iconic? “We had no idea what we were doing,” Claremont confesses.

“When I took over with issue #94, the presumption was that the industry was dying, the X-Men would not last. Based on its history as a series, it did not have much impact on the audience… unless you’re using Roy Thomas and Neal Adams, which changes all the game parameters,” he adds, acknowledging some of his artistic predecessors on the title.

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“Our attitude was: ‘If we’ve only got a year or two, let’s have fun! Let’s throw everything at the wall and see what sticks!’” And, it turns out, quite a lot of it stuck. “So we start out with the team coming together; we throw in a trauma with Storm and a demon; we throw in planes blowing up at Kennedy airport; and then we’re up to issue #100 right off the bat – so let’s bring back the Sentinels! And suddenly we have the transition of Jean into Phoenix and that was the second gamechanger.”

The first gamechanger, of course, was the introduction of the “All-New X-Men” with Giant-Sized X-Men #1 in the first half of 1975. The X-Men had been launched by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in September 1963. Though Lee and Kirby had found success with Fantastic Four and Thor, the X-Men had difficulty finding an audience. After shifting through a number of creative teams (including Thomas and Adams), the book went back into reprints following issue #66 in March 1970.

The relaunch in 1975 was a massive gambit. The editors at Marvel were taking quite a risk. They weren’t just reviving a troubled concept, they were broadening the comic’s scope as well. The make-up of the new X-Men team featured in Giant-Sized X-Men #1 was decidedly international, featuring the German Kurt Wagner, the Russian Piotr Rasputin, the African American Ororo Munroe, the Canadian named Logan – better known as “Wolverine” – and the Native American John Proudstar.

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According to Clarement, this diversity was the point from the outset. “That was the intent for the title from the beginning,” he explains. “Stan Lee, Roy Thomas and Len [Wein] were all working on the presumption that the X-Men would be a possible means of expanding the sales to foreign venues.

“Marvel had a reprint operation going in England, they were starting to talk to people in Paris and Italy, so there was this hope of moving beyond the domestic United States. And this was the thought of saying, ‘Let’s see what happens if we make it a more international group.’ Because, at that point, all the Marvel teams were all collections of White Anglo-Saxon Protestant males, with an occasional girl as a chaser.”

The strategy would work. Uncanny X-Men eventually became a massive success. Despite the troubled sixties, the book that had been relaunched in 1975 as a bi-monthly book would become one of the company’s great success stories. It ran continuously into the twenty-first century; the first volume ending in October 2011 with issue #544.

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The book even became the international success sought by the publisher. In his tenth year writing the book, Chris Claremont went on a European tour with then-artist John Romita Jr. and editor Ann Nocenti . They wound up visiting Paris, London and Barcelona – among other locales.

That was in the far-from-dystopian future of 1985. Still, like the heroic Kitty Pryde from Claremont’s own Days of Future Past, it’s worth taking a trip back in time to gain a little perspective.


 

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Claremont was born in England, but his family migrated to the United States when he was three years old. “I was abducted by pirates,” he jokes of his secret origin.

“It was a quest for something other than rations,” he offers after a moment. “London post-war was kind of unadventurous; even in the fifties it was not the hotbed of cosmopolitan excess. My mother’s attitude was that she was tired of rationing. She was tired of crap… she wanted steak.”

Of course, England remains a part of his personal identity. “I’ve been bouncing back and forth ever since,” he points out. The interview is peppered with references to cult Britannia like Doctor Who or James Bond, with a few more obscure references thrown in. His comics work seems peppered with a decidedly British flavour.

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He almost immediately established Muir Island as an important location for the franchise – a moody and dark island off the coast of Scotland. At one point his Britain-based X-Men spin-off Excalibur even featured Brigadier Alysande Stuart of W.H.O., a gender-swapped shout-out to an iconic Doctor Who supporting character.

And then there’s the Hellfire Club, the kinky mutant fetish club introduced early in his run that also popped up in the big screen feature X-Men: First Class. The club shares its name with a number of eighteenth century institutions in the British Isles, famous for their association with the occult and other unwholesome activities…

The very mention of the club generates a strong response from Claremont. “Ha!” he laughs. “That was me and John Byrne being a little…” He hesitates, as if carefully choosing how much of an anecdote to disclose. He diplomatically clarifies that it was “an inside joke that got out of hand.”

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Jean Grey’s Hellfire attire has invited comparisons to the outfit worn by Diana Rigg for A Touch of Brimstone, an episode of the classic British television show The Avengers that aired in 1966. On the similarities to that piece of Britannia, Claremont politely refuses to be drawn. “If readers choose to make that inference, then I’m all for it!”

Jump to another section of the interview:

We’ll be back with the second part of the interview tomorrow. Chris Claremont is currently writing a Nightcrawler miniseries for Marvel (comixology link), and Marvel just released a deluxe second omnibus collection of some of his iconic run on Uncanny X-Men (amazon link). The first section of his Uncanny X-Men run is also available as a digital bundle at comixology.

2 Responses

  1. I never quite got the Hellfire Club. Granted, I only read it once in its Ultimate incarnation. It’s that most famous of supervillains, the Totally Secret But All Powerful Evil Organization Of Mostly Rich White Men Who Want To Rule The World… but it seems redundant in a universe that already has HYDRA along with AIM for when HYDRA feels overused. (Interesting too that in order to make it an interesting antagonist for the movies, they basically turned it into the Brotherhood of Mutants 1.0).

    • Being honest, and speaking only for myself, I think a lot of the novelty of the Hellfire Club was the kinky sexy stuff.

      Claremont and Byrne’s X-Men was, I’d argue, one of the books that was sort of growing up with its audience. Comic books originally skewed towards kids, and I think the Hellfire Club with the kinky fetish stuff and lingerie was quite striking for the time, something a bit more “teenager” than most contemporary books. One of Claremont’s strengths as a writer was his ability to represent that – his X-Men is really a fantastic young adult novel that doesn’t talk down to its audience. (Although it’s never explicitly stated in the comics, it’s hard not to read the Hellfire Club as a kinky domination sex club. I mean, look at the two Queens and the goons’ outfits.)

      As comics generally went the way of embracing crazy sexual stuff – particularly in the nineties – I think the Hellfire Club lost its novelty a bit. After all, how Greg Land draws Emma Frost isn’t too different from how Greg Land draws any other character.

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