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An Interview with Chris Claremont, Part IV (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.

Seventeen years is a long time in real life. It’s an eternity in comic book publishing.

Chris Claremont remained on Uncanny X-Men for seventeen years non-stop from 1975 through to 1991. Even Stan Lee only wrote The Amazing Spider-Man for a decade. It’s a phenomenal accomplishment, particularly in an industry where that sort of creative stability is uncommon.

Did Claremont have any idea at the time that he would be working on the title for that long? “I never thought I would stay on for seventeen years,” he freely admits. “I just never ran out of ideas. It was too much fun. They were my friends, I didn’t want to dump them and run away.

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“In the back of my mind was the thought, ‘Oh, well, I’ll go for twenty and maybe retire.’ On the other hand, I could see myself getting to twenty and thinking, ‘Oh! But I haven’t told this story and I haven’t told that story and – holy cow! – there’s this new artist who just came in…!’”

Claremont has worked with a murderer’s row of fantastic artists. John Byrne, John Romita Jr., Marc Silvestri, Jim Lee. He is clearly energised by his artistic collaborators. He cites a twenty-first century example, “Again, it’s like – with X-Treme – I’m going with Salvador LaRocca and then he got yanked away for another book and I got Igor Kordy.

“And, I’m sorry, Igor was just… brilliant. It was totally different, it was totally non-traditional superhero presentation, it was very European – and to that extent it was very Eastern European – but it was wonderful! I felt we could do some really neat stuff with this.

“Same thing in ’06 when Alan [Davies] moved on [from Uncanny X-Men] and Chris Pachelo came in. He and I had a long coffee klatsch out in L.A. when I was writing the novelisation of X2. We were structuring out the book for the next couple of years. I was talking to him about what he wanted to draw and how he wanted to draw it.”

Claremont’s style is collaborative. “All it takes is me tossing an idea to the penciller and the penciller running with it,” he explains of the creative process. “Or the penciller tossing an idea to me, and I’m running with it and giving him – or her – the cues that will help bring it all together.”

There’s still a great deal of romance in comics for the veteran scribe. “We can do in 22 pages for our page rate, God help us, what would take Bryan Singer and Lauren Schuller Donner two years and $100m to bring to life on film. Which – aside from the fact that it’s an economy of scale that is breathtaking – I find it totally cool.

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“There is no limitation to what I can do with a Bill Sienkiewicz or a Walt Simonson – or a John Byrne for that matter. There is no place that Dave Cockrum and I could not send the X-Men and bring the reader along with them.”

He offers a mock telephone call between himself and his collaborator. “This issue we’re going to the moon! Oh, and by the way, Charlie is having mental connections with an alien from another galaxy!” the first participant narrates. “Yes, but she looks like a fox!” the second interjects. “No, no, no, that’s another book entirely where they are foxes!” the first corrects.

Although discussion of his work on Uncanny X-Men does tend to be dominated by the Civil Rights metaphor and the social commentary (“the pretentious crap!” he jokes, self-deprecatingly), one of the most appealing facets of the franchise is the sheer versatility of the X-Men as a storytelling engine.

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“What made the series so much fun is that you could do a social commentary story – like the graphic novel [God Loves, Man Kills]; you could do one of the Byrne issues where Ororo goes down into Harlem and finds her parents’ apartment which is now a crack den.

“But, in the same breath, you could spend 100 pages – as I did [in The Asgardian Wars] – with Art Adams, sending the whole kit and caboodle to Asgard and just going totally crazy. First the New Mutants leading the way and then the X-Men coming to the rescue. That’s just too much fun.

“I can take an Alan Davis story and just bounce the team from one end of the universe to the other – whether it’s X-Men or Excalibur – and then run them to a Medieval England where the kid’s riding on horseback in a full suit of armour, listening to a walkman. It’s a totally modern technological society that still embraces the Medeval façade. By the same token, my favourite Excalibur story of them all is Alan’s John Carter story – Nightcrawler of Mars!”

Reading back over Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men run today, there’s a staggering amount of diversity in storytelling. Mutant rights stories are published alongside demonic invasions and intergalactic epics. “That’s the beauty of it,” he boasts.

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“In Iron Man, you’re sort of stuck in the technological reality of the world. Okay, yeah, there’s the Avengers and you can do some kinda weird stuff with them… but, as Iron Man, you’re sort of stuck with Tony ‘I’m a genius’ Stark and we move on from there.

“With the X-Men, the sky is the limit. It literally is. To use a frighteningly literal, but altogether extraneous, analogy each issue is like its very own TARDIS. You open it up and it takes you anywhere. You’re perhaps on Earth, or it takes you to another galaxy, or another dimension, or you’re in the past or the future. You’re being attacked by flesh-eating aliens! You’re being attacked by demons! You’re going to hell, you come back! The sky is the limit.”

Claremont remains proud of all his work – even the stuff that never had a chance to see print. Discussing his aborted work with Pachelo, he boasts, “I’ll stack up the story he and I did where Shi’ar assassins wipe out the entire Grey family against anything that was done back in the seventies in terms of a powerful, kinetic – I like to hope gamechanger – story.”

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Of course, there are disappointments that come with the practical realities of comic book publishing. “The frustration was never getting a chance to bring it to pass, but that’s the nature of the industry now. The fun is always there. You have to balance it out against the fact that what I might want to do as writer of Uncanny may not be compatible with what the publisher feels they need to have done as the publisher of Uncanny.

“I was hearing more and more often towards the end that Marvel would want to entice a talent over from DC or even Joss Whedon in from outside – or that equivalent – and what do they have to offer? Well, ideally, they’d offer him Uncanny, but they can’t!”

Claremont has a lot of experience working in the industry. His attitude towards the politics and pragmatic realities is even-handed. He can understand why these sorts of decisions had to be made. “To put it in American football terms, you’ve got a player on a position. He’s a great player, he’s been there forever, but the team is moving on. You’ve got to filter in a new guy. The person being replaced may not like it at all – I was pissed as hell – but it’s not company, it’s not my product.

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“At the end of the day, the copyright says Marvel Comics – not Chris Claremont or Dave Cockrum or Len Wein – and we have to live with that.”


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Claremont touches on the topic of creators’ rights a number of times in the interview.

His departure from Marvel in 1991 due to creative difficulties within the X-Men editorial family helped to clarify the reality of the situation when it came to ownership of the characters.

Asked how he feels to come back to write for these characters he defined after years of being written by other writers, Clarement acknowledges, “The reality – as was made clear in ’91 – was that these were not my toys. They’re Marvel’s toys. That’s something you have to accept when you go in the door.”

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He does stress that it’s not an issue unique to comic book publishing, and it’s something he has encountered elsewhere in his career. “In the same way that when I wrote the Shadow War books for George Lucas – the sequels to Willow – those were his toys. I was creating a whole new expanse of characters and situations for them, but they’re his toys.”

It’s something that becomes more and more common in contemporary franchise-driven media. “In a very real sense, the producers of Game of Thrones – once they move beyond George’s template – they’re creating the concepts, but they’ll still be George Martin’s toys.

“That’s the nature of reality in creativity. The difference between the X-Men and Game of Thrones is, of course, that the ownership of Game of Thrones is George R.R. Martin whereas in Marvel’s case it’s now Disney, which has advantages and disadvantages.”

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Of course, it can’t be quite as simple as all that. There is a more complex relationship at work. “As a creator – as a creative artist, for want of a better term – when one sits down to start writing a story, the idea is to something that means something to the audience, something that has a lasting memory, that transcends the technical ownership of the actual product.

“I think, in one small tiny measure of his soul, you get a similar expression from Alan Moore regarding his Captain Britain stint with Alan Davis. It helped him shape his work, but – in the process – it totally redefined and fleshed out the character that Herb Trimpe and I had created and made him that much more potentially exciting for readers down the line.

“It’s the nature of the game that these aren’t our characters. We might be bonded with them, we might be associated with them, there may be people who feel like ‘Stan’s FF was the best, Gerry Conway’s was the best, Walt Simonson’s Thor was the best’ and there are others who might feel totally differently.”

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Claremont won’t allow himself to get drawn too deeply into that argument. “I can’t argue because I’ve heard it all before and I’ve got better things to do with my time. My goal now is to focus on writing really good stories and to keep on going for as long as I can get away with it.”

Towards the end of the interview, I ask him if he has any regrets; if there were anything he did that he would not do over, or if there was anything that he didn’t do that he wished that he had.

He thinks it through. “I probably shouldn’t have quit in ’91,” he answers after second. “If I’d stuck around – if I’d let Jim have his way for six months, I would have been back on the book. But that’s a ‘what if?’ At that point, Marvel would have wanted to find another top artist to replace Jim and that artist would have wanted the same sense of control that Jim had.”

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When it comes to things that he didn’t do that he wishes he did, he hesitates a moment. “I wish I’d fought like hell for the copyright,” he finally offers. After a moment, he seems to think better of it. “That’s fantasising; that’s alternate dimensions. I can’t go back in time. It’s done. One could argue that even if all the creators got ownership of all the characters, would things be any better? Honestly, I have no idea.

“I have no real complaints about working for Marvel. We’ve had a phenomenal relationship for better than forty years.”

Jump to another section of the interview:

We’ll be back with the fifth and final 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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