Monday, June 13, 2011

Chris Claremont on Evolving the X-Men, Part One

Words: Christopher Irving
Pictures: Seth Kushner

“You may have noticed (as a parenthetical aside),” Chris Claremont says in the middle of a thought. “I talk as I write, which is by the word.”

Sitting in his Brooklyn home, Claremont is affable with a dry sense of humor tinged with a bit of self-deprecation. Claremont is synonymous with his blockbuster comic book work as writer of the X-Men for near two decades, serving as architect to a series that helped keep the comic book industry afloat during its worse days, and increased visibility on the best. But Claremont’s influential career didn’t start with X-Men: it started, innocently enough, with Mad Magazine Fold-In mastermind Al Jaffee.

“He had been good friends with my parents since we moved to Long Island, which was a half-century ago,” Claremont reveals. “Al was, in many respects, the reason I’m working for Marvel. The official story: I went to Bard College and, in those days, Bard had what was called a field period, where they shut down for Christmas break and didn’t open for spring semester until the middle of March. Since upstate was intense in the winter (and we actually had a lot of snow) and Bard was a small college and not well-endowed; I suspect the practical side of things was that it saved on heating.
“The idea was that you were expected to go out and get an internship or job in a field associated with your interests or major, and build up a balance of experience, so that when you actually graduated, you would have some practical knowledge to go with the academics you learned in class. My freshman year, my majors were Political Theory and Acting, and there wasn’t much going on in New York theater in January. I was writing at the time and asked Al if Mad had interns.
“As it turned out, he went to my parents and said ‘There is no way in hell I’m going to recommend your son for an intern—Do you know what we do? Do you know what happens when we get together? You’d never forgive me!’
“He said ‘I’m friends with Stan Lee. Would you be willing to work for Marvel?’ and I said ‘Hell, yes.’”
“So, Al called Stan, Stan called me, and I told him I’d work for free. Stan, and Marvel, were never one to turn down a free lunch in those days, and he said ‘Come in and be a gopher for two months.’”

Claremont’s comic book reading habits were first kicked off when, in junior high, he swung by a newsstand and fell in love with Fantastic Four #48, Kirby’s drawing of the bald and large-headed alien Watcher emblazoned in full color. 

“I started flipping through it, and it was Jack in his heyday (in terms of art) and I thought ‘This is really cool.’ So I bought it, and came back a month later and bought #49, then #50. Before I knew it, I was hooked. From FF, that led me to Roy working with John Buscema on The Avengers, and that led me back to Stan and Jack on Thor, and suddenly I was buying comics again. Marvel, to me at the time, was brilliant.” 

            “When I went out to college, my father threw out my entire collection, because comics were ‘inappropriate’,” he adds. “Fortunately, some of them survived, but among the ones that didn’t was the Action Comics that came out the last of November in 1963, which had Superman meeting John Kennedy! It could have paid for my kids’ college at this point. He had a very English attitude that ‘This is kids’ stuff, and you’re not a kid anymore.’”

The weird thing was, working in the office and seeing (this is back when I was a gopher) Barry’s first pages coming in, it was like ‘Holy shit!’ This was something that you don’t get anymore, that kinetic moment of discovery, where now everything’s posted on Facebook and comes in as electron streams. It isn’t the same as seeing someone crafting out. 

The Marvel books were creatively in their heyday in 1968, but still a small company with a small staff of about twenty people. While Ditko had left The Amazing Spider-Man and Romita had taken over on pencils, Lee and Kirby were still going strong on Fantastic Four (and his usual bevy of books), and Thomas and Buscema were on Avengers.
“There was a little reception area, and then a little two-desk spot for people who attended to the reception area (me and a lady who attended to the reception area),” Chris recalls. “Behind us was the bullpen, which in those days was John Romita, Sr., Herb Trimpe, and Marie Severin. Across the little hall was the technical side of things, like the stat room, and when you got to the end of that little hall, the door at the right was Stan’s office (the only one that had a door), and then the office on the left was Roy and Marvel’s business manager and Stan’s secretary (who was at the time Roy’s wife). There was an office for John Verpoorten who was running everything.”

One comic book made it on the scene in January, 1969 and was prophetic towards Claremont’s eventual career as a writer. Neal Adams’s first X-Men artwork came in and Claremont had to deal with the amount of fan mail the next month. In less than a decade, plenty would come in for his run on the book. X-Men would last for ten more issues, with Adams and other artists pitching in, and then turn into a reprint series for a few more years.

Working at Marvel was also a personal vindication for Chris, who was given permission to enjoy digging into comics for work. What started as an innocent catching-up turned into a learning experience, and Claremont’s first test as writer and idea man.

            “I was reading through all the back issues, and the latest issue of Sgt. Fury comes in—‘The Trial of Nick Fury,’” Chris recalls. “John Severin was doing brilliant art. I’m looking through it and here’s a priest coming on and saying ‘I knew Nick Fury when he was a young lad, and he and his brother were always running around. His mother would yell out ‘Come home!’ I’m going ‘Uh-oh,’ and I went back and referred to the first year, which was Stan and Jack. Here’s Nick Fury established in issues #3 or #4 as an orphan with no siblings.

            “I went ‘Roy, we have a problem, maybe?’ I showed him the two and he went ‘Okay. You found it. You call Stan. Don’t bother me.’ So, I called Stan. I said ‘This is Chris at the office.’ 

            “‘How you doing, True Believer!?’” Chris does a dead-on Stan impersonation.

“He had a Third Avenue apartment at 59th Street. This was money central. I told him what happened and he said ‘Okay. You found it, you fix it.’ That was Marvel. If you worked for the House, you had to have a brain and do your job. 

“I figured Nick was adopted (subsequently), which actually helped out down the line with the [Jim Steranko] Zodiac story, because they weren’t real brothers but the adopted son and the real son. There were limits to what we could do with the Severin pages because they were finished. This was literally two days before going to the printer to go to press, so we didn’t have any leeway. That’s the way you handled it, by seeing the problem and then improvising. I had to take the stats down to Stan to show him, and that was my first encounter with Scientology. They had an office on 59th Street, between 2nd and 3rd. It was weird, but fun.”

Claremont was on board at Marvel right as the second generation was coming into play, with Roy Thomas the advance scout for a new wave of writers who grew up loving comics (much the same way the first comic book writers and artists were fans of science fiction and pulp magazines). 

“He was this bundle of intense, focused energy, and he was turning out some absolutely brilliant stuff,” he says of Thomas. “It was like wandering around a pressure cooker. John would be drawing these beautiful pages, Herb would be doing great stuff on Hulk, and Marie would be growling at everybody (because we were all testy boys). Every few days a package would come in from John Buscema, or Sal, or Jack, and it was like ‘Whoa!’ It was absolutely wonderful.

            “I went back to college and got my degree, and came down to New York and started auditioning and doing freelance. I found myself eventually back to working for Marvel on staff. Again, it was the last year to year-and-a-half before Stan moved to L.A. I got my chops, cliché as it sounds, working at the feet of the master, sitting down and being yelled at for fucking up, by somebody who knew what he was doing.”

Chris came in as Assistant Editor of the black and white magazines. His boss was Tony Isabella, whose submission Chris rejected in his intern days five years earlier.

            “He never let me forget that, either,” Chris smiles. “It was fun. I worked with him and then I worked with Marv. Then I was shifted out of the black and whites and over to the color line. I was Len’s Assistant Editor and then Associate Editor, which is when you get all these cool titles (and no money whatsoever). 

            “At the end, Len was Editor-in-Chief and he and I ran the line. He made the decisions and I did the dog-spotting. It was just the two of us putting out forty-five books a month.”

            It was gearing up to be a hectic time, as Marvel held onto the same editorial structure that had worked for Stan years earlier, but with less titles. Also by that point, Stan’s forcing the Comics Code’s hand on the anti-drug issues of The Amazing Spider-Man, and publishing without the Code’s symbol, sparked a revision of the Code. Now allowing for monsters and horror in Code approved comics, Marvel was publishing horror comics for the first time in twenty years, on top of the healthy superhero line.

            “The attitude then—Stan’s attitude and Roy’s—carried over to Len and Marv during their tenure, and was that our job was to find the best possible craftspeople for the job, and then turn them loose,” Claremont notes. “If you’re hiring Gerry Conway, or if you’re hiring someone like Ditko or John, Sr.; if you’ve got guys on that level, there’s no point in telling them what to do. You turn them loose. If there is a problem or a mistake, then you talk to them and fix it. You basically try to establish that it doesn’t happen again, and then you move on. It was a more functionally laissez-faire attitude. 

“Occasionally you had some head-banging. Len was writing the Hulk in The Incredible Hulk and Steve Gerber was writing him in The Defenders. Steve and Len would get into huge fistfights (metaphorically speaking) over who was doing the authentic Hulk. Steve would handle him one way in Defenders, and Len would handle him the other way in Hulk.

            “It was an eclectic approach. Stan’s attitude was more along the lines of ‘Okay. Just don’t fall on yourselves. Readers will find a way to shuffle them together. If they’re good stories, they’re good stories and will take care of themselves.’ Nine times out of ten, that works. I will freely confess that my own attitude became much less laissez-faire when I got a hold of the X-Men, simply because nobody gets to fuck it up but me. I don’t want any wankers mucking about with my guys. 

“That’s just me being a prima donna. We were all, unfortunately, prima donnas.”   

But, back to Marvel in the ‘70s: Claremont was an Associate Editor and Marv was still Editor-in-Chief. Marv’s departure would be just one part of the revolving door of Marvel Editors-in-Chief while Claremont would embark on a less predictable freelance career.

“I was Marv’s Associate Editor and finally decided, I’d had enough. Two and a half years was too much for me. I didn’t see any future in editing and figured it was time to move on. Two weeks later, Marv announced he was quitting. [I went] ‘You couldn’t tell me? Then I wouldn’t have quit! Idiot!’” Claremont said jokingly.

            “That started the January of ‘Holy shit!’ Literally, they had a twenty-name list on the editor’s door of potential Editor-in-Chief who’d all turned it down. We finally got to Gerry Conway, who took the job for a week and half and decided he couldn’t do it, and left with fifteen titles to write. Archie took over. At the time, Marvel’s financial situation was much what it always is, which was precarious. We had a limit on how many titles we could produce. Len had his quota, Marv had his quota, and Gerry had his monstrously huge quota; that left about six titles for the other dozen and a half writers who needed work, who were committed to the company. Part of Archie’s first year was shuffling the deck to keep us all alive or solvent while, as his way of explaining was: ‘You know who we’re dealing with. You know these three guys, and you know their work schedules. You know their production histories. Hold on for six months, because someone’s bound to blow up!’ Sure enough, Gerry went back to DC and things opened up.

            “Then Jim [Shooter] was hired as Gerry’s assistant. Then Gerry left three weeks later. Jim did the totally honorable thing that he felt, and gave Archie his pro forma notice. Shooter thought Archie would say ‘No, stick around,’ but Archie said ‘Okay.’ Then he called me, and I said ‘Hell, yes! Freelance sucks. I’ll take my job back.’ 

“My problem was that you actually couldn’t live on staff salary, so I went to Sol Brodsky, who was Marvel’s financial manager. I said ‘Look, if this job is going to be done right, I’ll have to give up most of my freelance, and I will not give up the X-Men. I’ll even give up Iron Fist, which I don’t want to do because I love it. Can we find a salary number that will balance the two out?’

            “I gave him the number and Sal looked at me like I was an idiot. We were very parsimonious. We couldn’t agree on a number, and in the meantime, Jim came back and had a heart-to-heart with Archie. Archie, being one of the rare true gentleman in the world (if not the industry), took him back with apologies to me. I wasn’t eager to come back as Associate, but there was a practical coolness and I didn’t feel the need to fight Jim over it. He needed it and wanted it and could have it.

            “The things you would’ve/could’ve/should’ve done. Jim stayed on as Associate Editor until Archie moved on to Epic, and then took over,” Chris says. Shooter’s tenure as Editor-in-Chief would be met with both praise and criticism, as he shepherded Marvel into one of the most creatively and financially successful periods in its history.

            “When I look over my history, I look at working with Dave, with John Byrne, with John Romita Jr., with Marc Silvestri, and can watch everything grow—the stories grow, the characters grow, which issues are hit-and-miss and which ones are dense. It’s a lot of fun. I think that’s how you get the best and most honestly organic work out of a team, as opposed to the more contemporary approach where you shuffle whoever’s available with whoever is available.”

            Claremont was about to make some history of his own as a writer in taking over a revamped version of the X-Men. Roy Thomas, in wanting to capitalize on overseas markets, had the vision of turning X-Men into “mutant Blackhawks,” by recasting the team with international members. In 1975, writer Len Wein and artist Dave Cockrum introduced the “All New, All Different” X-Men in Giant-Size X-Men #1. In it, original X-Man Cyclops led a new team of the Russian Colossus, Native American Thunderbird, Canadian Wolverine, African Storm, German Nightcrawler, Japanese Sunfire, and Irish Banshee to save the remaining members of the original. The X-Men book returned with #94 (picking up after the reprint issues) by Claremont and Cockrum; Wein would write one more issue before handing over the full creative reins to Claremont and Cockrum. The book became a runaway success, as the team took the mutants into new territory, with the stories’ heavy focus on characterization. Where the focus on the mutants had before been on personality traits, Claremont and Cockrum took a more cerebral approach to the X-Men. Chances are Claremont’s background as an actor morphed into an almost method acting form of conceiving character and writing comics.

            “When you commit to your project and your characters, they’re the center of your creative focus and universe,” Chris notes. “Your vision is the right one and you don’t want anyone mucking about with it. Len’s vision, for example, of Logan (including giving him the name Logan) is diametrically opposed to mine and Dave’s. Len came up with the concept, put it in place and turned it loose and then, for better or worse, left the book. Dave and I sat down and figured out how to make this character click as we evolved him down the line. 

“By the same token, John Byrne’s visual depiction of what he looks like without the mask is head and shoulders different from what Dave evolved it into in the X-Men. Cockrum has always, as a matter of course, thought outside the box: ‘Why can’t you have a fat guy in a skintight costume? That works!’ You look at it and you think ‘Okay.’ Thank God he was in the Legion of Superheroes and not the X-Men, but there you go. ‘Why not have this tall, gorgeous black character who has a face that looks vaguely like a cat? Looks interesting. Why not have Nightcrawler?’ 

“Len’s vision of Nightcrawler was a bitter, tormented and anguished soul. Dave’s and my response was partly ‘been there, done that, and seen it too many times.’ But when we sat down and kicked it back and forth, trying to hammer it out is that if you’re walking down the street and get hit by lightning, and it makes you look like that, there’s a rationale. But if you’re born like that, you need to have a tremendously offensive chip on your shoulder your entire life—which is valid—or you go the other direction, which is to have him go ‘I’m cool. You guys have no idea: I can walk up walls, hang upside down, I can fight standing on one leg with my two hands, a foot, and a tail holding a sword. And I’m invisible in the dark.’”

“We thought ‘Why not take the most outrageous looking character on the team, and make him the most rational, human, decent and most empathetic soul?’ Naturally, he and Wolverine would bond because opposites attract. And they work. It was the same with Logan, who we put as much into answering ‘Who is he?’ and ‘Why is he?’ Len originally saw the claws as part of the costume. As Dave and I were doing the character, we thought that made him like Iron Man, and the problem with Iron Man is that anyone can wear the suit, and it doesn’t matter if it’s Tony or Rhodey. What makes him special? What makes him unique?

“‘So the claws are part of you?’
“‘You never told anyone.’

“‘You never asked,’” Chris snaps his fingers. “Then you have, suddenly, this interesting physical difference (i.e. he has claws that pop out of his hands), but the implication that it must hurt every fucking time. That sets up the line in the first movie where Rogue asks him ‘Does it hurt?’ and he says ‘Every time.’ That’s one defining moment, but the other is in ‘You never asked.’  That catalyzed a key moment in Logan’s personality. That’s how you put them together: you take all these little bits and slide them in, and build your edifice one layer at a time. You have a general sense of where you want to go and how you want to get there, but the details of how the pieces fit to evolve this three-dimensional character is very much a matter of organic growth rather than construction, so you just follow the leads.”

And this is where it becomes apparently clear: After thirty years, Chris Claremont is still the X-Men’s biggest fan, often going into asides and talking about the mutant superheroes as if they were real people. For someone who defined them, directed their lives, and lived with them for close to two decades, they are real, each one having their own distinctive voice. 

Cockrum left X-Men after #107 and handed the artistic duties off to John Byrne, Claremont’s partner on the Iron Fist comic book. While Cockrum was a New Yorker, the Canadian Byrne lived in Calgary; Claremont views geography as the only major collaborative difference.

            “For most of the time leading up to the mid-‘70s, if you wanted to work in comics, you had to live within driving distance of New York, if for no other reason to get your damn paycheck,” Chris points out. “You came in, turned in your work, and got the check. When you went home, you deposited the check and were solvent for a week.
            “It wasn’t really until Stan moved out west, and then Jack moved out west, that things began splintering. We did a lot of work with Tony and Marie DeZuniga, and they had this huge studio in the Philippines. They shipped the pages as Air Freight and, if the package got lost (and you’re talking about a fairly impressive box of a few hundred or even a thousand pages a month) you were so fucked. They did get lost, on more than one occasion. But there was no electronic transit! You called them on the phone, trying to calculate the time zone difference, which was fourteen hours tomorrow. It was a much more laissez-faire attitude than we have today. Because everything was still three-dimensional and is all hard copy, you did not make mistakes and couldn’t afford to, because you had to tear up the whole page. The lettering was done on the page and the inking was done on the page. It was solid and physical. You couldn’t take anything for granted. It was an adventure, in the best and worst sense of the word.

            “You had to deal with people and, with John out in Calgary, I went out there a few times and would stay with him to figure things out. Whereas with David, we’d get together and just have coffee and sit in Washington Square. That scene we did in X-Men #105, with them battling one of Galactus’s many heralds, Firelord, that was us plotting. The panel Dave drew had him there with Peggy, and I was there with my girlfriend. The inker, Bob Layton, erased Peggy and put himself in,” Chris laughs. “But, that’s life, you know.

            “The difference, to a large extent, was that Dave had a much more prevalent sense of humor. We tended to do stuff that was just ‘Hey, bet you can’t do this!’ He once blew up half of JFK, with 747s going this way, a little Lockheed fourjet coming this way; all of the stuff with Lilandra floating through space and telepathically bonding with Charlie; or elves in Ireland, for God’s sake! The idea was ‘This is comics,’ so it was outrageous and dramatic, but we should be able to have a laugh.

            “John was more Canadian: it was a more serious approach, a much more—and I’d hate to say mature, but it was. He loved Nightcrawler because of the absurdism he could do and giggles he could get. That’s why Kurt and Ororo were great together, because you could have a moment where she asks ‘Am I pretty?’ and he goes ‘Yeah!’, because she has no idea. 

“With John on Iron Fist, Dan was stalwart and cool, and Misty was ‘Wow!’, and that carried over to the X-Men. He bonded with Logan because he was Canadian, and because there was this constant conflict of rage with heroism. And it worked! That was the fun part: you watched the artists go over the characters and the characters go over the artist, and everyone seemed to play to each other’s strengths. It may well be because I’m not a twenty year-old anymore, but I don’t see the fun as much anymore. It seems like nobody’s having fun in comics, other than perhaps Deadpool.”

The high point of the Claremont/Byrne run was the “Dark Phoenix Saga,” a multi-issue story that concluded in 1980’s X-Men #137. X-Man Jean Grey had manifested cosmic powers and became the other-worldly Phoenix during Cockrum’s run, but was corrupted into the Dark Phoenix during Byrne’s. Destroying an entire galaxy, Jean was put to task by the alien Shi’ar for her crimes against the universe. The battle for Jean between the Shi’ar resulted in Jean’s sacrificing herself to keep her power from endangering others in the future. It was not the first death in superhero comics, but arguably the most epic and impactful one. Claremont and Byrne’s original intention was to have Jean stripped of her powers and continuing life as a normal person. Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter, however, needed to see Jean pay for her crimes with her life.  

“[It was] an adventure—the best of times and worst of times, often in the same moment,” Claremont reflects on working with Shooter. “The resolution of the Phoenix Saga was one of the most frustrating experiences that I think any of us ever had, but I also think it was the right move. The decision, three years later, to undo the Phoenix Saga with the resurrection of Jean was less so, but that’s in my opinion. 

“He had a very focused and real sense of what his job and responsibility was as Editor-in-Chief. I think what he really wanted to be was Stan: Editor-in-Chief and Publisher. What he ran into was the evolution of the industry. By the time things came to a head in ’88, Marvel was a totally different animal. There were other ambitions at play, on levels far, far above where we lived. We weren’t just a little publishing company anymore, but were trying to be a media company. The management wanted the biggest paycheck they could get and they didn’t see it as coming from us.”

Be here on next week for Part Two of Chris Claremont's story!