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An Interview with Chris Claremont, Part III (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.

The heart of Chris Claremont’s storytelling is character.

In talking about the iconic X-Men characters he helped to shape and define, he’ll often use their first names. Even minor characters like Thunderbird get referenced using their proper names.

“People are not picking up the book to see the action,” Claremont explains. “People are picking up the book to see the characters.” For Claremont, one of the keys to writing Uncanny X-Men for so long was remaining true to the characters.

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“In the same sense that the progression you see watching Daniel Craig’s presentation of James Bond from Casino Royale through to Skyfall – or, even better, Judi Dench’s progression from the M who shows up in the first Pierce Brosnan movie through to Skyfall – that tells you all you need to know. That makes the films. That makes them far different and more powerful pieces of dramaturgy than their predecessors.”

Claremont’s approach struck a chord with fans. “The most memorable fan letters I would get,” he reflects, “would be from people who said, ‘What I see with these fictional characters are moments, behaviours, emotions that remind me of me. They relate to people, they relate to circumstances, they relate to situations, like people I know. They are like people I know.’ Well, bingo.”

The writer is still proud of that. “The moment you have that connection, it becomes so much easier to take that next step to ‘well, if they can save the world… I can save the world.’ Yes, it’s the essence of pulp fiction, but it’s the essence of good pulp fiction, that the reader bonds with the character and identifies with the character and moves on from there.

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“To me, once you build that bond, you treat it with respect. They’ll keep reading, you’ve got to justify that commitment with stories that are worthy of it. Yeah, it makes it harder – and less commercial in some respects – but a hell of a lot more fun.”

This seems to excite Claremont than talking about academic analysis or retrospective evaluation of his work. “The interesting corollary is that it doesn’t get any less valid forty years later,” he remarks. “You can give these stories to kids today and they can get swept up in them as powerfully and irresistibly as their parents – or, God help me, grandparents – did before them. And that, as a writer… that’s nirvana.”

One of the more interesting aspects of digging through Claremont’s classic X-Men comic books is the old letters pages. An unscientific survey of issues around The Dark Phoenix Saga revealed that one-in-three letters came from a female reader, far ahead of the average for other contemporary Marvel superhero books. Writer and artist Colleen Doran – best known for her work on A Distant Soil – was enough of a fan to claim a no-prize in a fan letter to Uncanny X-Men #178.

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The decision to get away from what Dave Cockrum had described as “the house wife heroes” was made consciously when Claremont and Cockrum took over the title. “When Dave and I sat down to transform Jean into Phoenix, the idea was ‘we have this fundamentally cool character, Marvel Girl is a dumb name, her costume is a dumb name… how can we bring her into the seventies with excitement and panache?’

“Dave did something like thirty or forty different design sketches playing with different designs, different looks, different approaches to how she presented herself. We zeroed in on Phoenix and it worked.”

To Claremont, the decision to feature more dynamic and prominent female characters was something of a no-brainer. “Why am I disenfranchising half the audience, half the population?” he asks, rhetorically.

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He recalls how his own childhood experiences informed his writing. “My mom was active RAF during the War – the Big One. She manned a radar station on the south coast of England. And, every day, the locals would come across from the other side of the channel to drop presents, as it were.

“It was an exciting time. It was scary as hell; the country was fighting for its life; but, on the other hand, everybody was having a surprisingly good time within the framework of it.

“My mother was RAF; my uncle was RAF; my father was RAF after he got out of medical school; my grandfather served four years in the trenches in the Great War, as an officer. There is a theme of doing your duty that runs through the family, but – more importantly – it’s not restricted to just the guys.”

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That carried over to Uncanny X-Men. “My feeling was, if you’re going to put these characters – these X-Men – in harm’s way, why is it any different for them just because they’re of gender?” he ponders. “Any more than Kurt or Colossus would be any different from Cyclops in how they approach the overall circumstance.”

Claremont’s work on these characters extends in just about every direction. He has even written X-Men Forever, a series picking up off his Uncanny X-Men run left off in 1991; the series allowed him to follow through on ideas that weren’t possible when he worked on Uncanny X-Men, like killing off Wolverine.

Claremont also wrote The End, a trilogy of miniseries wrapping up various X-Men plot threads in an apocryphal wrap up to the X-Men mythos, tidying away decades of storytelling by himself and by other writers.

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He is currently writing Nightcrawler, a solo series based around the iconic teleporting mutant he first wrote back in 1975. I ask him how far along he is with Nightcrawler. He chuckles. “How many have I written? I just got the assignment ten days ago!” He observes, “It’s very strange, because in my day you had a six month lead time to produce a book. Now apparently six minutes is du rigour!

Still, he has a palpable excitement it when it comes to writing the blue-furred German mutant. “I mean, ‘I can teleport! I have a tail! I can duel with swords on all of my limbs and hang upside down from ceilings!’ If that isn’t the jumping off place to fun and adventure…

“Underneath the surface is a man with conflicts, with doubts, with ambitions. If you believe my future history, he goes on to become an Oscar-winning actor! Why not show those elements?”

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He discusses his “future history” of the franchise, the lives that these characters lead beyond the perpetual “now” of comic book publishing. “Kitty becomes President of the United States. And, in the secret history of the future, arrives at the end of creation with Logan to put out the last light in the universe. And what happens next?”

There’s a dramatic pause to heighten the tension, a storytelling technique worthy of Claremont. “I can’t tell you,” he finally confesses. And here, Claremont smiles a little. For a man who has shared more than seventeen years of stories featuring these characters, there are some things that must remain his alone.

“That’s my story.”

Jump to another section of the interview:

We’ll be back with the fourth 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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