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An Interview with Chris Claremont, Part II (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.

It’s hard to talk about Chris Claremont’s X-Men run without discussing his collaboration with fellow comic book superstar John Byrne. When Uncanny X-Men shifted from a bi-monthly schedule to a monthly schedule, John Byrne took over from Dave Cockrum as artist on the title.

Claremont and Byrne are responsible for one of the most celebrated creative runs in mainstream comics. In hindsight, the two seemed well suited. Both were born in the same year, and Byrne had also been born in England. Byrne’s family migrated to Canada when he was only eight years old.

“The point is that John and I had the advantage of originating out of the same cultural stew pot,” Claremont explains. “When I would throw in conceptual reference to something I’d seen in Eagle…”

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He pauses, realising awkwardly that I don’t grasp the reference. “It’s an old weekly adventure magazine published in the U.K.,” he helpfully offers.

“The Adventures of Dan Dare, Sky Pilot of the Space-Ways!” he illustrates, adopting the bombastic narrative voice in which Claremont’s prose often demands to be read. “It was originally published in Eagle, which was a boy’s weekly comic magazine that alternated text articles and comics. Adventures of a commando trapped behind enemy lines, prisoners of war, police constables on patrol, Dan Dare, football players, the whole nine yards… and every so often – because the creator was a minister, the Life of Christ by the same artist who did Dan Dare.”

He pauses to reflect on that old comic strip from long ago. “It was beautiful and surprisingly egalitarian in that it catch the eye of even a non-active believer as myself and present the life of Jesus in terms that were relative and accessible to a young kid across the pond trying to figure out how to get away from the pirates who kidnapped him and get back home and live happily ever after. It covered a lot of exciting bases.

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“But the thing is, John and I – in many respects – spoke the same language; the conceptual language, the imagination language. Mine just went to the left, his just went to the right; occasionally we’d bump into each other. But the conflict between us catalysed really good stories. Neither of us ever got exactly what we wanted. But the synergy of what we did get was – more often than not – better than what we started with. And that was worth all of the kerfuffle that went into its creation.”

The relationship between John Byrne and Chris Claremont was occasionally strained and frustrated. The pair never seemed to quite agree on which way a character or plot should go. For example, the duo disagreed over long-term plans for Jean Grey at the end of The Dark Phoenix Saga, their big iconic Uncanny X-Men story arc.

“That was part of what made our tenure on the X-Men as…” …he searches for the right word… “… exciting as it was. We had very divergent opinions on what should happen with the characters and the story arcs. Each of us thought we were right. Which made being an editor… interesting.”

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The partnership would end shortly after the publication of The Dark Phoenix Saga, with the duo collaborating on Days of Future Past before going their separate ways. John Byrne left to enjoy an extended (and influential) stint as writer and artist on Fantastic Four; Claremont remained on Uncanny X-Men for over a decade with a selection of A-list artists.

However, Claremont looks back affectionately on that period. “Out of that conflict comes great stories.”


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The Dark Phoenix Saga ranks as one of the great comic stories; followed closely by Days of Future Past. The Dark Phoenix Saga was one of the main inspirations for the third X-Men film. Days of Future Past provides the story for the upcoming Bryan Singer blockbuster.

The Dark Phoenix Saga is one of the most influential comics ever published. Alan Moore praised Claremont’s work on Uncanny X-Men in contemporary interviews while he was working on Miracleman for Warrior magazine. The Dark Phoenix Saga is kept in print by Marvel, released in oversized hardcovers and gigantic omnibus collections.

Is Claremont fazed by any of this? “We told a damn good story,” he states matter-of-factly. He then clarifies, “We told a damn good story damn well. The impact it has on the market at large, on the industry at large, is somebody else’s concern. We were not setting out to be a game changer. We were setting out to tell a cracking good story.”

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Claremont’s work has been reprinted and collected. It has been the subject of issue-by-issue blogging projects and academic scholarship. It’s a far cry from the circumstances in which it was published.

“In those days, the presumption was that there wouldn’t be a comic book industry in the eighties,” he assures me. “We were on a sinking Titanic, no one had any idea that a TARDIS would pick us up and carry us away happily to a whole new dimension of excitement and sales.”

He’s coy when it comes to discussing the cultural impact of his work. “The writer’s job is to write the work. In comics, my job is tell a cracking good story to the artist, so the artist can draw spectacular Walt Simonson/Art Adams/John Byrne/John Bolton/Alan Davis visuals. And, out in the market place, the readers buy them enthusiastically, go home and go ‘wow!’

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“The most flattering comment I’ve gotten on the work in X-Men is that every thirty days – back in the day, in the early and middle eighties – readers would line up at comic stories to buy the next issue as it came out.”

Even today he’s humbled by the success. “That, for any writer… you sit back and think ‘holy cow, what have I done and how can I keep doing it better?’ Whether one is talking about comic books or television series or radio dramas, that is what you want. No more or no less than Dickens going around reading chapters of his latest novel in sequence to get readers excited about it, so that that when the book came out as a novel, they’d buy it.”

Of course, The Dark Phoenix Saga is the product of an entirely different comic book industry. “In a conceptual view, we operated under a whole different creative philosophy than the business does today. With us, the rule was ‘get on, say your piece, get off, move the hell on.’

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“So, Dark Phoenix was exceptional in that the storyline took a year to reach its conclusion. But each element along the way was two issues – one issue or two issues. We didn’t go for three until we reached the end and the third issue was a double issue to bring it to a satisfying, powerful conclusion.

“There was none of this ‘we’re going to take five issues and twenty-five crossovers and we’re going to fill the Marvel Universe – or the DC Universe – for six months with all of this excitement!’ and blah blah blah! And then trade paperback it and then hardcover it and then we’ll do the sequel!

“The point was – as Archie Goodwin used to say – that if it was a good story, you got on, you did it and you got off and everyone is going ‘holy crap! that was brilliant! what the hell happens next?’ Because you need the ‘what the hell happens next?’ Just saying you’re brilliant and walking away, that’s no good.

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“You want them to come back, line up in front the shop and then buy the next issue. On the other hand, if you slip on a banana peel and it’s a total %#@!ing disaster, it’s only one issue or two issues – you call it quits and move on. And hopefully by the time of next issue, they’ll have forgotten the F.U.B.A.R. you’ve just committed.

“Whereas, if you’re locked into an interactive epic that crosses over seven different series or five months or bi-weeklies or this and that and all the other things… if there’s a false step anywhere along the way, that could be a problem.”

The ending of The Dark Phoenix Saga was a bone of contention. Claremont and Byrne both had their own opinions on how it should end, but both wanted Jean Grey to survive the experience. It was editor Jim Shooter who first suggested that Jean might have to die at the climax of the story.

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Claremont makes it clear that Shooter didn’t meddle in his process – this wasn’t an editorial edict coming down. “He didn’t say that ‘you have to kill her’; that was my call. What Jim said was, ‘She’s just committed global genocide, she has killed six-and-a-half million people. You cannot point the magic zap machine at her, strip her of her Dark Phoenix powers and let her go! C’mon!’ And he’s right.

“John and I were pissed because we thought that this had all been cleared beforehand. We told the plots to the editor, the editor was supposed to tell them to the editor-in-chief and get us a green light. Obviously there was a failure to communicate. So, we were proceeding under a misapprehension, but when we got to the end of the story, we really set up a reality that had to be dealt with honestly.”

As far as Claremont was concerned, there was only one other possible ending to the story. “Throw her in jail,” he recalls, “which would have left the book locked into ‘we cannot leave Jean across the galaxy in jail, we have to get her out.’

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“So the next umpty-bump years of X-Men would have been them trying to find the means to get back across the universe to get Jean out of jail, to flee the Shi’ar, they would come after her, re-capture her, take her back; the X-Men go after them, take back.”
This wasn’t where Claremont wanted to take the franchise. “They might have been fun stories, but – to me – that was boring. As an alternative, ‘we’ve been doing this for a year, screw this – let’s kill her off!’”

Claremont’s style writing Uncanny X-Men helped turn the book into a hit, but his style is at odds with that of many contemporary comics. A frequent criticism of Claremont’s work is the writer’s exposition or purple prose – a tendency to introduce each and every character in each and every issue, in a way that occasionally feels disjointed in the era of the trade paperback.

“You have to assume that anybody who’s reading the issue has never read a comic or this comic before,” he explains. “I was looking at a current issue doing some research, and I realised half the way through it that I didn’t know who anybody was. Yes, there are all these heads on the first page, but that doesn’t cover the characters who aren’t listed there.

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“I found out that I didn’t know who was who. I wasn’t sure what they were doing. This is going to sound weird coming from me – the copy was way too heavy and way too hard to follow. I basically put it down and said ‘okay… you’ve lost me.’ That, from my education in the field, is not what you want.

“Yes, if you are a regular reader, being reminded… you know all this, you don’t need to be told. Yes, that’s true. But bear with me, because out there may be one or two new guys who have never read this before, we want to be nice to them.”

This was a conscious strategy on the part of Claremont as a writer. “The argument always was – back in the day – ‘We’ve got 100 readers this week, how can we make it 101 next week? How can make it 102 the week after? How can we make it 200 next month?’ The idea was to grow the series. And, in X-Men’s case, we did.”

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Claremont is the writer of the best-selling comic book of all time, 1991’s X-Men #1. However, he was also consistently writing books attracting audiences of almost half-a-million readers. From his point of view, the strategy was obvious.

“You want to keep them excited, keep them energised, keep them coming back for more, for the best reasons. Not because we’re doing a mass group crossover, but because we’re doing a great story that happens to involve a mass group crossover; the essence is that it’s just a great story.”

Jump to another section of the interview:

We’ll be back with the third 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.

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