Comics as we know them today would be vastly different if Chris Claremont had pursued his initial passion of becoming a director.
For most of the past five decades, Claremont and his astounding legacy of work has cast a wide shadow over comics — especially Marvel. Not just over the X-Men franchise, for which he played a pivotal role in turning into the company's gold standard, but across most of the company's titles. All you need to know about his impact on Marvel is that they're publishing a special comic in December to mark his 50th anniversary of writing for the company, the Chris Claremont Anniversary Special, complete with a brand-new story scripted by the writer himself, who turns 70 on Nov. 25.
You can count the number of writers worthy of such a special printed tribute on both hands, and still have a few digits to spare. In the pantheon of comics writers, Claremont stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Golden and Silver Age giants like Gardner Fox and Stan Lee, and other greats like Denny O'Neil, Alan Moore, and Grant Morrison. All those writers changed the business. Claremont certainly did too, and at a crucial point for the industry.
Claremont's layered writing style, which expertly balanced soap opera melodrama and Shakespearean tragedy during his peak years on Uncanny X-Men, was and remains intoxicating. By the time he arrived at Marvel in 1969 as an office assistant, his time at Bard College had already given him a headstart on developing a talent for dramatic storytelling. It wouldn't be long before he put those storytelling instincts to work in comics. He certainly wasn't the only writer at Marvel (or DC for that matter) creating comics stories of greater sophistication and structure during the Bronze Age; he was just doing it better than just about anyone else.
Claremont took great risks, and together with his equally talented artistic partners, jumped from space-faring adventure to intense family dynamics that helped draw fans to this new group of mutants. He also mastered the art of story threading and foreshadowing. The long-form style of storytelling that is basically an industry standard today has its roots in the serialized tales Claremont spun in the X-Men. An obvious example of this is the Dark Phoenix story, which had various hints and elements spread out over many issues. But there were others that were even more slick. In X-Men #103, he has a leprechaun reveal Wolverine's real name. It would be years before his fellow X-Men would learn his actual name is Logan. The way Claremont and Byrne slowly offered up tiny bits of illumination on Logan's backstory created the mystery that helped make him such a popular character. Claremont even dropped a hint about Mutant X in issue #104, but made us wait until #125 to meet the mutant villain Proteus (also Moira MacTaggert's son, because Claremont clearly loves his drama).
There are many ways to judge the greatness of stories. One method I use to grade comic books is how well they age. And man, the Claremont-written X-Men comics hold up incredibly well. Go back and read any chunk of the OG X-Men series from issues 94-275. The sheer readability of those comics is astounding. I spent most of the past year doing a re-read of those X-issues and a lot more, as research for an upcoming book I'm writing, Wolverine: Creating Marvel's Legendary Mutant: Four Decades of Astonishing Comics Art (due out next summer, but you can pre-order now).
I spoke with Claremont extensively for this, and just as he was the other times I've interviewed him, he was an absolute delight. Not just because he has great recollection of key details, but because even now, decades removed from the stories we discussed, his passion for the characters remains unquestionable. Our conversation was centered on Logan, but he spoke in detail about other X-Men he spent years writing, and his love for Ororo, Kurt Wagner, and especially Kitty Pryde was… refreshing. I talk with a lot of comics creators from various eras. Some understandably don't share the same emotional connection with these characters that the readers do. They great ones obviously care for them. I don't believe you can write great characters without feeling some sort of connection to them. I've spoken to some writers and artists about past projects where it is obvious they have lost whatever interest they had in those works.
Claremont is different. When I interviewed him earlier this year in NYC, in what I believe was my last in-person interview before the pandemic, I asked him if he revisited his old New Mutants comics before reuniting with Bill Sienkiewicz for the 2019 one-shot, New Mutants: War Children. I thought it was a perfectly reasonable question; he hadn't written those characters for some time, certainly not for Sienkiewicz to illustrate. He looked at me like I was nuts.
"Uh, not really," he said. "It's not like I don't know them."
He was correct. If you had read his New Mutants stuff from the '80s, and then picked up the "War Children" issue, you could see it was written by someone who still understood the characters as he saw them. It was also written by someone playing to the strengths of his artistic collaborator.
I know some people point to all the great artists that Claremont worked with on X-Men to kind of dismiss his contributions somewhat. That's utter nonsense. Dave Cockrum, John Byrne, Paul Smith, John Romita, Jr., Marc Silvestri, and Jim Lee are all incredible artists, with vastly different styles and approaches to the work. It's a tribute to Claremont's adaptability and versatility that the X-train kept running on time and in peak form for basically two decades with him leading the way. He wrote to the strengths and interests of his artists.
By the way, while the X-Men is the primary part of his legacy, Claremont has a helluva lot more great work on his resume. His Iron Fist run in the mid-'70s with Byrne — his greatest collaborator, in my opinion — is a fascinating collection of Bronze Age storytelling. So is the duo's too-short stint on Power Man & Iron Fist. Claremont's most underrated writing stint may be his time on Marvel Team-Up and Ms. Marvel. Both runs showcased his knack for fleshing out characters and creating subplots that help support the main story.
His story in Avengers Annual #10, may be the perfect example of Claremont's commitment to his characters. That's the classic story that marked Rogue's first appearance, but also served as a follow-up to the infamous Avengers #200, quite possibly the nadir for Earth's Mightiest Heroes. It's the story where, for all intents and purposes, Carol Danvers, Ms. Marvel, was raped by Marcus, the son of the time-traveling Immortus... And her teammates stood by and did nothing.
It's an infamous story that many of the folks who worked on it have tried to live down for years. For Claremont, the story particularly irked him, because he loved the character of Carol. And he wanted to fix it. "I went to my editor, Weezie (Louise Simonson) and said, ‘I'm doing this story.' She sent me over to the Avengers editor, and I told him why I wanted to do it, and I gave him my outline to the story," Claremont said. "And he said okay. Because as the [original] story was printed, it presented a sequence of relationships between the Avengers that didn't work for me as a reader."
What bothered Claremont the most — and 40 years later, it was clear by how animated he got in our interview that it still irked him — was how the Avengers were portrayed as just standing by and watching their friend go through this ordeal. "Did any of them ask the question what the hell is going on? [Carol] was raped, and none of them even noticed," he said. "Which is a heartbreaking reality in the real world that exists to this day."
At the end of his story in Avengers Annual #10, the heroes come face-to-face with Carol for the first time since she had left with Marcus. And Claremont scripted a scathing dialogue where Carol calls her friends out for doing nothing when she needed them most. "Her point was you guys are superheroes. We are a team of superheroes. We watch each other's back," Claremont said. "If something like this happened to any of you, I would go through heaven and Earth to find out what the real moment — what really happened. And if it was innocent, Mazel Tov. If it wasn't, the person responsible has to be held to account. And you didn't do that for me. You just said, 'Live happily ever after. Goodbye.'"
He could have just written a lazy retcon story to undo what Marcus had done to Carol, or since he was busy with his own monthly book, just sat back and let the Avengers creative team clean up their own mess. But Chris Claremont cared enough about the character of Carol Danvers to write a story that not only cleaned up a mess other writers had made, but that ultimately helped save the character. Because he cares that much.
Don't forget that Behind the Panel is a multi-platform series that can help keep you entertained during these strange and stressful times we're in. Our video series is loaded with my in-depth interviews with amazing comic book creators and retrospectives, like this one on the legacy of Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns. The Behind the Panel podcast is an audio documentary series that provides unique insight into your favorite creators and stories. Check 'em out, we think you'll enjoy them.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBCUniversal.