Chris Claremont is considered by many to be the godfather of Marvel Comics’ X-Men franchise, taking over a failing bi-monthly just when it had just been relaunched in 1975 with an international flavor. Previously, it was on the verge of cancellation – hard as that is to be believe today – and several years’ worth of old stories were being reprinted until the Len Wein/Dave Cockrum relaunch.
Under Claremont and a host of collaborators, notably the aforementioned Cockrum, John Byrne, Terry Austin, Jim Lee, Marc Silvestri, among a slew of others, X-Men went monthly (even bi-monthly in the late 1980s and early 1990s). Claremont spent 16 years on the book (1976-91) and under his stewardship, the X-Men became the No. 1 bestselling comic book in the Western Hemisphere for over a decade, spawning the X-franchise of comic books (this includes X-Factor, Wolverine, New Mutants, the list goes on) and making the characters household names alongside Superman, Spider-Man, Hulk, and Batman.
Today, the X-Men has been a media juggernaut, having been adapted for several cartoons and – most notably – for the big screen with 2000’s X-Men, 2003’s X2: X-Men United, 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand, and this summer’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine with Hugh Jackman reprising his role as Wolverine.
QUESTION: How did you take over X-Men?
CLAREMONT: Len Wein was the editor-in-chief and I was his associate editor. The two of us were running Marvel day-to-day, frightening as that sounds. He and Dave (Cockrum) were working on putting X-Men together. I was kibitzing – through a ferociously annoying extent – pitching ideas outside his door, listening to them, staring in envious enthusiasm at Dave’s pencils.
What happened was the book was originally scheduled as a quarterly, giant-size (book). As I recall, Len decided go off-staff and work out a freelance schedule for 4 major monthlies – Thor, Amazing Spider-Man, Hulk, Fantastic Four. Len’s assessment of his own schedule and his own capabilities, is that he could handle 4 monthlies, but couldn’t handle 4 monthlies and a bimonthly. Quarterly X-Men he could handle, but coming out every two months was a little too problematic. Since it was the relaunch of a series that had never been successful even with Roy (Thomas) and Neal (Adams)…
You have to understand: This was 1975 and nobody had an inkling – or even a ghost of an inkling – of what was in store. If any of us knew then what the X-Men would do, Len wouldn’t let it out of his door. There was no way he’d cut it loose – and rightly so… It was like, “Give it to the young kid. He’s enthusiastic and it’ll shut him up for a week. Let’s see what happens.” Well, surprise.
The history of modern comics would be incredibly different if you took (Wein’s) contributions out of the mix. The fact he doesn’t get credit for it half the time is disgraceful. We owe a lot of what we are – certainly on the X-Men – to Len and to Dave.
QUESTION: You stayed on the book for 16 years?
CLAREMONT: With me, I figured I’d stick around until it got boring or my work wasn’t of value. The thing is the longer we went, the higher the sales. To me, it was can you top this? The problem was the more stories I told, the more it seemed I had to tell. It never stopped being fun.
QUESTION: Would it be impossible to stay on a book for 16 years in the comics medium today?
CLAREMONT: I don’t know if it’s a function of the nature of the medium, or the ambition of the writers. I think if someone came along and their work on a title as writer or artist resulted in sales of half-billion copies an issue, I think the publishers would likely do whatever was necessary to sustain the writer and the book.
The fact is, sales today are significantly less than that (half-billion copies per issue), so there is perhaps an incentive to keep rotating personnel just to juice the product. By the same token, there are a lot more perceived alternatives. If someone came along and scored that kind of sales impact in comics, the chances are they would try to move on to another medium as Neil Gaiman and Frank Miller have in film and books. It’s probably not likely those circumstances would occur again, but anything’s possible.
QUESTION: Your thoughts on contributing to this pop culture icon, which has transcended every media conceivable?
CLAREMONT: I wish I’d managed it better. I think there’s a part of me that thinks if I hadn’t quit in 1991, if I’d stuck with the book, if we actually managed to sustain sales that we’d achieved with No. 1-3 for 6 months or a year – not the 7 million, but if we kept the numbers high and solid – that we would’ve had a better foundation to withstand the shock that was coming down the road with the sales collapse in the mid-90s.
QUESTION: Talk about your relationship with the artists who drew your scripts?
CLAREMONT: I never did full scripts. Think about it: When you’re working with (Dave) Cockrum or (John) Byrne or (Paul) Smith or (John) Romita Jr. … if you look at the list of artists who drew through 1991, you’re talking about – for the most part – brilliant storytellers. Why waste their time? Why hamstring them by giving them my visual conception of the story, which may work in terms of the practical necessity of getting from Page 1 to Page 22, but may miss some things as far as what the artist is capable of adding to the concept.
The advantage of a full script is that you can give it to anyone. That often happens, unfortunately. The ideal is to find the best way of telling the story. As an example, the first issue of the Wolverine mini-series (in 1982) I did with Frank Miller was one of my standard plots; it ran something like is 18 pages, which is pretty amusing since the story is around 22 (pages). It just shows that even in a plot I tend to rant like no tomorrow. The plot for the fourth issue was a 20-minute phone call and maybe a page of typed notes.
Why? Frank didn’t need to be told the obvious. Frank didn’t need to be told… Basically we just had to agree on what beats we wanted to hit, where it began, where it ended, what significant moments were along the way, and he was off and running… he’d take it from there. That’s the ideal way of doing it – for me, anyway.
QUESTION: Did you have a favorite artist that you worked with on X-Men?
CLAREMONT: Cliché as it might sound, when you are talking about artists of that caliber – and the list is a whole lot longer than that – how do you choose? There’s no way you can differentiate. It’s not that Frank Miller is better than Walt Simonson, or Walt Simonson is better than Frank Miller, or either of them are better than John Bolton; it’s that they’re all different and they’re all gifted and they all bring a unique sense of character and storytelling to each issue, each character, each series. You adapt to it. You try to find the best way of telling their story, of presenting your points of view that allows the artist to strut their best stuff.
There’s literally no way one could possibly differentiate in terms of which one is better or best. They each have assets and gifts of their own that make them unique and valuable simply to the stories that I did with them and the series as a whole, whichever series it was. The trouble is it’s a questions for which I have no answer.
QUESTION: At one point, when the X-franchise started growing, you worked with Louise Simonson, yes?
CLAREMONT: The one unique advantage X-Men had was 16-17 years of, essentially, focused creation that was extremely specific and unique. There wasn’t really until the very end a necessity integrating scores of our books because for the longest period of time, I wrote everything, or Louise Simonson and I wrote everything. Weezie was the editor of X-Men and agreed to this stuff. She just stepped sideways (and became a writer) and we just kept on going.
QUESTION: Are comics becoming more mainstream, what with all the movies based on comic characters?
CLAREMONT: Hollywood likes going for preexisting material, for material for which they know there’s at least a core audience, material that has a built-in sales hub. In comics, you have the New York Comicon and the San Diego Comicon as places to market the films. (There’s also) a worldwide appeal. That makes (comics) – at least at this stage of the game – attractive from a commercial standpoint. Eventually, presumably, the trend will run out, but at the moment, it seems not to.
QUESTION: Comment on your cameo in X3 as the man mowing the lawn?
CLAREMONT: It was a lot of fun. It was the last of trilogy. I guess they thought it’d be neat to have me make a cameo; I wasn’t about to argue with that…
QUESTION: Thoughts on Hugh Jackman as Wolverine?
CLAREMONT: I thought he was brilliant. Back in the day when we first started kicking around idea, my choice for Wolverine was Bob Hoskins. That was totally late 20th century, and it’s not relevant to today’s market.
QUESTION: In your words, what gives the X-Men its staying power?
CLAREMONT: Good characters doing stories that I assume are well-written and well-drawn. They’re a unique set of characters and the concept related to the audience, it speaks to the audience in terms of alienation, in terms of finding g a place for themselves in the world of prejudice. For all the fantastic aspects of the series, if you peel it down to its essence, it’s about things that matter on a personal basis. It’s not simply the characters go around saving the world – saving the universe, even – it’s about what makes their lives tick… how to grow up. Those are questions, I think, every reader can relate to: How do we find our proper place in the world? And then what?