A Day of Futures Past: An Interview with Chris Claremont

Originally posted 2013.09.20

In geek culture, we tend to regard the people responsible for the media we consume on a higher level than the rest of us. Yet, we all forget that these individuals are not Gods, but real people with actual lives and emotions. My interview with the writer Chris Claremont reminded me of this fact.

As the floor of the Montreal Comic-Con began to fill up on its final day, I was lead to Mr. Claremont’s booth by the woman in charge of Guest Relations. As we approached, he was already with his first fan of the day, going over the strength of the teens portfolio while suggesting improvements to his panel design and line work. As I listened I felt the wisdom from his words. He had much to say to those who were eager to listen and converse, but not as some god or philosopher like we make him, or others like him, out to be. No, here was a man who, for over 40 years, has written many prolific stories we grew up with, with X-Men and other titles. A man who has experienced a lot in an industry we have only heard stories of how rough it can be. A man who is quick-witted and funny, yet humble and enthusiastic to meet the many fans he has. He is someone eager to talk with you as a friend and share knowledge with you like a teacher to a student, with the sensitivity of a father with his child.

I must admit I was slightly nervous when I approached him. Here was the individual responsible for much of how I knew the X-Men to be during the 80’s until his departure from Marvel. He was responsible for so many beloved characters including Kitty Pride, Gambit, Rogue and Jubilee. He also helped develop characters like Wolverine, Storm and Jean Grey into how we all know them today. He, along with artists such as Jim Lee, John Byrne and others, were responsible for my pursuit of a career in the arts.

After he was finished I introduced myself and added that I was a big fan of the work he had done on X-Men. In a way to break the ice, he feigned a melodramatic response by rolling his eyes while throwing his head back. He jokingly added, “Uh oh. I knew I shouldn’t have done this.”

I opened the impromptu interview – which could have easily turned into an all-day discussion due to him being so personable – with how it felt to have played such an important role in the development of the X-Men over the property’s 50 years.

Dramatically throwing his head back, he began with “The simple answer is ‘It was really cool.’ The punk answer is ‘It was a dirty job, but somebody had to do it’”, which we both chuckled about a little before he continued. “It was just the dumb luck of being in the right place at the right time.”

“And you brought everyone these awesome stories because of that dumb luck.”

After a pause, he responded with his arms opened, “I had no idea. I mean, I was working for Marvel in those days to earn money to pay for acting. To go off in the summer being an actor, that was my goal. I woke up five years later and I was a best-selling comic book writer. A few years after that, I was the best-selling comic book writer in the United States. I went ‘Holy crap!’”

My second question dealt with his preferences out of the many stories he wrote during his career. Specifically, I asked him which of the story arcs he wrote during his run were his favorites. With almost no hesitation, he answered “(Uncanny) X-Men 94 to 277, inclusive. To me, it’s one story; it’s got bits, it’s got chapters, it has little branches off the main story, but it’s one story up until the end in 277.” He referred to a significant part of his run from 1975 until 1991. In Uncanny X-Men #94, most of the original team (Angel, Iceman, Marvel Girl) along with Havok quit, leaving Cyclops to lead the all new all different team of X-Men. In #277 most of the team are back together to fight and stop Warskrulls while helping Lilandra. Within his selection he includes his two major storylines, the Dark Phoenix Saga and Days of Future Past as well as many other series such as Excalibur.

I asked a more personal question, to which his answer was something I was not prepared for. “What was the hardest decision you had to make when writing these stories?” His facial expression changed to be more serious as he leaned forward, intertwining his fingers.

He looked at me with a slight pain in his eyes and somberly answered “To quit.”

It is no secret that the relationship between he and Marvel soured to the point where he left the company in 1991. During the X-Men 50th anniversary panel the day before, there were quite a few questions where Mr. Claremont referenced his time at Marvel. Each time he did so, especially when it came to the editorial staff at the time, there was a hint of animosity in his words.

“But at the time” he continued, “I felt it was necessary, and there was no apparent enthusiasm in Marvel management to talk me out of it.” After a pause for reflection, he opened his arms and placed his palms on the table. He went on to say “But then four years later, I was back as editorial director.” His face changed to a more jovial expression. He finished with a chuckle “And 3 years after that, I was fired again.”

“It’s like a revolving door at that point.”

“More like evolution in action.”

At the 50th anniversary panel, the panelists were asked a question by a female fan what was the saddest death of a character they came across while working on the franchise. Three of the panelists – Claremont included – answered Jean Grey, while the more recent artist for Wolverine and the X-Men Nick Bradshaw answered Broo. I began my next question with “Yesterday at the panel, you said the hardest character you had to kill was Jean Grey…”

He stopped me in order to correct my paraphrasing. “The hardest” he asked as he sat up in his chair before continuing. “They killed off Thunderbird… no, Len (Wein) decided to kill off Thunderbird as a surprise. ‘Holy cow, we killed off a brand new X-Man!’ With Jean, in the original concept we had no intention of doing that. Jim Shooter, as Editor in Chief, presented a vision of the story that was different than what we had shown and were experiencing. But morally and editorially was far more correct. It was right. And everything after that fell into place. It was logical and he was right. And for what its worth, I was smart enough, or dumb enough, to say ‘okay.’ It turned out being the best decision for the franchise.”

I decided at this point to patiently step aside to allow a waiting fan to meet Mr. Claremont. He presented him a copy of X-Men: Omnibus and an issue of Uncanny X-Men from the Days of Future Past storyline. As Mr. Claremont signed both, the fan asked what he thought of The Wolverine. As they conversed, I learned more about the man. As he earlier answered, he wanted to become an actor, which has carried over to his writing style with his treatment of characters. It is also prevalent in his love of film, which he is more than happy to talk about with people. He is as much of a geek as the rest of us.

After a few more moments, I continued with my questions, focusing on the upcoming adaptation of the Days of Future Past storyline. Mr. Claremont had already stated the day before he would not answer any direct questions regarding the production – which was filmed recently in Montreal – due to a disclosure agreement with Fox. He even added in the X-Men panel on Saturday, “Excuse my language, but you don’t want to fuck with Fox.” However, being the writer of the source material sites like IMDB have begun to give him a writing credit for the project. I asked him because of this situation, had Bryan Singer contacted him for input for the story.

He looked at me and asked “Where did you hear (about the film credit)?”

I simply answered him with IMDB and other sites.

Mr. Claremont smirked, held out his hands and answered “Well, IMDB is not always accurate. I mean they had me listed as a writer on The Wolverine.” He brought his hands back together and continued “I gave him the source material and that was it. He’s Bryan Singer, an award winning director so he doesn’t need any advice from me. If he asked for it, I would have given it. But no, he hasn’t asked for it.”

He then sat back and contemplated while continuing “My question is, how is (Singer) going to fit it in under three hours. There is just so much that…” He paused to collect his thoughts for an answer.

I attempted to gauge his point, by asking “That it just wouldn’t fly?”

“Not so much that it wouldn’t fly. You have such a large and talented cast with Michael Fassbender, Ian McKellan and others that have so many awards between them; enough to start a football team. You have Ellen Page coming back as Kitty. You know, Ellen is my favorite Kitty of the 21st Century. And then to have Sentinels on top of that? I just don’t see how it can be done.”

He shifted forward in his seat, his hands interlaced as he continued. “But, if we were able to do it in a few panels, I’m sure Bryan will be able to do it. I must say that I’m excited and eager, out if any film or X-Men project, to see the finished product. Say what you will about Fox, but they have the ability to bring in the right people. I was in England for X-Men: First Class and met with Lauren (Shuler Donner, producer on the movie) and they are pulling in the best of the best. Hell, they even have John Ottman doing the score for the film. I know I’m geeking out, but I have faith – based on experience – in Bryan’s work.”

Working on my own novel series, I held back a personal question I had for last. It was a question that only a person of his experience could answer. “What is your advice for aspiring writers out there?”

He began with “Get a day job. You write, and you sell.” He then quoted something the science fiction Robert Heinlein, one of his influences, told him once.  After a moment he explained its meaning. “You set out to write the great American novel. You and three million (other writers). But, as you write, you refine it and whittle it down until it becomes a short story. You now went from a group of three million to about one hundred. Those are much better odds of being noticed. You sell it, and then you write more.” He added, “People have come up to me and ask ‘How do you write?’ I respond with ‘How do you breathe?’ It isn’t something I necessarily like or dislike. It’s just there. It’s a part of me.”

I wanted to leave the interview on that note, and not just because of the people waiting to meet Mr. Claremont. In fact, he saw the line and politely excused himself, saying “I’m sorry. That’s what happens when you let an old man ramble.” I looked over to the group waiting and they were all listening as attentively as I was. We were all in agreement in the same sentiment: That we were enjoying the experience. I personally could have stayed all day and talked to him, not because of who he is or what he has created throughout his 44 year career as a writer. No, it is because he is a person. Because he is a geek like us who likes to share his experiences.

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