Chris Claremont on X-Men: Days of Future Past and Kickstarting the Superhero Movie Trend
Chris Claremont has a yen for spinning epic yarns, either in comic book form or when talking with fans. And both can be equally astounding. His contributions as a writer for Marvel Comics are the stuff of legend, specifically to the X-Men canon. And the tales he imparts in interviews and at conventions, like the recent Phoenix Comicon, are larger than life, dynamic, and filled with action, drama, and humor.
YouTube Chris Claremont (right) discusses the X-Men with a fan at Phoenix Comicon 2014.
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Claremont may not have invented the X-Men (that was Stan Lee's doing) or its most iconic character Wolverine (credit: Len Wein and Roy Thomas), but he did help give Marvel's fabled mutants more depth, grandeur, gravitas, and -- most importantly -- a second lease on life after re-igniting interest in anything X-related after a rather fallow period in the early '70s when cancellation loomed.
He not only changed the face of the X-Men, but also Marvel Comics itself, fueling the rabid popularity of Wolverine, creating and expanding characters' backstories, and adding a certain emotional weight to the dealings of mutant-kind.
And a slew of some of X-Men's more kick-ass mutants were the brain-children of the British-born writer, some male (Gambit, Sabretooth) but mostly female (Rogue, Mystique, Rachel Summers, Kitty Pryde, Emma Frost).
Along with Marvel artist John Byrne, Claremont conjured such famous and popular arcs as "The Dark Phoenix Saga" (where Jean Grey attains the absolute zenith of her mutant powers and puts the entire galaxy on blast) and "Days of Future Past," the latter of which you may have seen in cinematic form at your neighborhood multiplex.
It's not the only Claremont creation to be translated into an X-Men film. "God Loves, Man Kills" became the basis X2: X-Men United, his 1982 collaboration with Frank Miller on the Wolverine spinoff became, um, The Wolverine, and various and sundry other plot and character tidbits hewn from his stories grafted into X-Men: First Class. (We're pretending X-Men: The Last Stand doesn't exist for the sake of argument. Besides, it may have been completely nullified by Days of Future Past.)
Not only did he provide the wellspring for many an X-Men movie, according to Claremont, he might be responsible for the entire comic book/superhero film trend of the last decade and a half.
In short, he played a key role in getting 20th Century Fox to make the original X-Men film when the studio's interest was lagging. And Claremont sparked their interest much like he got geeks into the X-Men comic book 20 years before that: by underscoring that their mutations made them analogues for minorities, the mistreated, or the marginalized members of society and not just two-dimensional superheroes in spandex.
It worked, and the rest is history.
We got a chance to speak with Claremont at length during his recent visit to the Valley, and he had plenty to say. Not only did the 63-year-old scribe dish on behinds-the-scenes info on Days of Future Past, he also shared his feelings on the state of comics, the relationships between the big two (Marvel and DC) and the multinational corporations that own both companies, his recent work on the new Nightcrawler title, and how mutants represents the "others" of society.
If that weren't enough, he also commented on the campaign ads of current Arizona gubernatorial candidate Doug Ducey. No, really.
As with most geeky discussions, spoilers both major and minor abound, so consider yourself warned.
You've been credited with helping save the X-Men franchise back in the '70s with Len Wein and others at Marvel. How does that feel?
Well, that and $2.50 will get me a subway token. On one level it feels great. On the other, it feels frustrating because I'm functionally on the sidelines watching other people having fun with the characters and circumstances that I set in motion. So it's the disadvantage of being 60 in a world that is much more oriented towards 20-year-olds.
And the other frustration, practically speaking, when one is dealing [with] editors, the way that editors make their bones is by finding the next young, hot talent. The next Brian Bendis or the next Matthew Vaughn if you're looking at film. And shepherding him or her to triumph. And it's no fun [for] a young, ambitious editor to be teamed up with an old fart who is writing these characters and defining the series before you were even born. Because, as editor, you have your own set of ideas, but you're dealing with someone who has their own set of ideas who might be persnickety about yielding. It's the foundation of a possible conflict, which neither editors, nor writers, nor artists like, so you find a way around it.
You've been working for Marvel on the new Nightcrawler series. Did they bring you back into the fold?
Marvel Nightcrawler #1 (April 2014)
They called me and said, "Do you want to write Nightcrawler?" and I said, "Yeah." On one level, it's a no-brainer; I'm under contract, so when they call, I go. But it's a lot of fun. It's just that the reality requires that the two creative sides work together. And anytime that happens, there's always and integral level of friction and frustration because different creative minds have different approaches, different visions, different forms of telling stories. As with any creative reality, you have to find a balance.
So that, in turn, becomes the foundation for more interesting stories. Because, the trick is, when you're writing, you have to be able to be able to steal from everyone.
Sort of like that old quote attributed to Pablo Picasso: "Good artists copy, great artists steal?"
I would almost say, "Create the great, steal from the good." You don't want to be a schlub. One doesn't consider oneself to be a pudknucker. But you're grabbing bits and pieces of everything you see done in the world around you. The question is, how artfully can you mix it all together, and, oh, come up with, to be a selfish person about it, a Days of Future Past instead of Pacific Rim?
So did you tap into notable source material for any of your legendary comic book arcs, such as the hero's journey or classic mythology?
No. I mean, other than in the sense that I've read those types of works. But its not a question of sitting down, reading a specific text, and deciding to steal from it, or at least be inspired by it.
I have a dear friend who's a Pulitzer Prize-winning endocrinologist. She's a journalist who's a specialist in infectious diseases. Back in the day, at any given time she was off in Zaire looking for the Ebola virus or addressing some think-tank in Washington. She's the only person in my circle of acquaintances who's been on a first-name basis with at least two presidents and one vice president. I'm sorry, I'm a geek, that's cool to have Bill Clinton on speed dial and have him answer. That's fun.
So the trick is to find something, a moment from her life that's got me saying, "Oh, this is cool," and filter it into what I'm writing, but in a way that makes it faithful to, obviously, writing about infectious disease, but a cool story that is unique and independent on its own. You just don't steal chunks of lives and throw them in, because that's ultimately boring.
Well, one could find shades of classic tales in some of your works. Like, a parallel between A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court and Days of Future Past.
Yeah, in a way. But hopefully with distance enough and invention enough that you can look on it as, yes, they're similar, but its a fresh spin on a classic trope. The counter-argument is, all we're doing is recycling the same 10 stories that we're dealt with in The Iliad. Between the 21 plays, Shakespeare dealt with it all, so we're just ripping him off. Well, you know, okay, but hopefully its in a way that makes a fresh and exciting and enticing to the current audience.