Documentary Spotlights Chris Claremont's 'X'-cellent Work

Tribune News Service (TNS)

Not only did Claremont save "Uncanny X-Men" from cancelation, he turned it into the company's biggest hit.

One of the major milestones in comic book history came in May 1975 when a very young writer with an interest in acting, Chris Claremont, took over penning the exploits of a band of mutants in the Marvel's Uncanny X-Men. He got the job both because of his enthusiasm for the characters and because the comic was doing so poorly in circulation that veteran writers had little interest.

What happened after is the subject of Patrick Meaney's documentary, Chris Claremont's X-Men, available through Video on Demand starting Tuesday. The film is an extended version of the director's 2013's Comics in Focus: Chris Claremont's X-Men. Officially, the book and band of heroes are Marvel's X-Men, but Claremont made such an impact on the book and the comic industry over the next 17 years, the comic book title was transformed by Claremont's embracing of change and the respect he showed for the readers.

Not only did Claremont save "Uncanny X-Men" from cancelation, he turned it into the company's biggest hit. The success can be measured in the influence his writing had as his storylines have been used to create 10 films and television series. It can also be measured in how Claremont changed the way comics were written, implementing complicated plots, delving deep into the psychology of human emotions and pushing for more of an emphasis on female characters by moving them into leadership levels.

Even when talking about his work and career, Claremont reveals his complicated thinking process. He refuses to talk about which of the hundreds of characters he created are his favorites or which artists did the best job at bringing his words to life. Claremont deflects that kind of scrutiny to a later time because he's still working and such retrospective analysis can't be done until the journey ends.

He does offer a few glimpses into the process that made him one of the most successful comic book writers. On the question of what audience he was writing for with his intelligent and detailed stories, Claremont says it was a simple approach that worked.

"My ambition was very fundamental. I wanted to grab every set of eyes, every brain and member of the audience who was out there," Claremont says. "The only way to do that was to tell stories and create characters and put them through hell in ways the readers found irresistible.

"I think that's what every writer's ambition is when starting out. The trick is succeeding."

Claremont pauses and then adds that success often is "sheer dumb luck." In his case, that was his being the right young and energetic writer who happened to be on the Marvel staff when one of their comic books was struggling, despite having a solid cast of characters. He took that opening and wrote stories that to him just felt right.

One area that felt very right was Claremont's push to make female characters more prominent, as with the likes of Rogue, Dark Phoenix, Jubilee, Emma Frost and Mystique. The move wasn't some giant epiphany about women, but was a bit of the influence of his two original collaborators, Ann Nocenti and Louise Simonson, and his decision that it made no sense for women not to have a bigger place in comic books.

"I thought comic books were boring. Why did all comics only have one female character? Half the world is female," Claremont says. "I wondered why they were always 'girls' and not 'women.' They were always being rescued and not rescuers."

Claremont could not understand how those with so much raw courage and intelligence could be ignored simply because of their gender. He saw it a matter of swiping the full potential of human possibility in create characters that covered such a broad spectrum of races and genders.

One factor that helped Claremont bring such a fresh perspective to comics was the British-born writer didn't grow up reading the more traditional brand of American comics where the lines between good and evil were clearly defined. It was Claremont who wrote the story line that took Jean Grey from hero to villain. Having villains become good had been done, but this was a bold move in the comic book world that get even bolder when Grey was killed after becoming the Dark Phoenix.

Enough time has passed since he was taken off "Uncanny X-Men" in 1991 that Claremont is able to talk about how he feels about the way the run ended. In the film, he calmly talks about how corporate changes ended up being the death knell for his days with the X-Men.

"If this documentary had been filmed in 1992, I suspect my attitude would have been completely different," Claremont says. "The fact is that (expletive deleted) happens. These are Marvel properties and because they sign the paychecks they reserve the right to make its own decision in regards to its own titles and by extension to its talent.

"My mistake was assuming was assuming my tenure and my demonstrative success insulated me from that kind of concern. From Marvel's perspective, the longer I stayed where I was and the more successful the title became, the more of a fear grew at the corporate point that the book could be viewed as Chris Claremont's X-Men and not Marvel's X-Men."

That's the point Meaney makes with his documentary. As for what Claremont wants viewers to get from the film is a fascination with the story and a curiosity about what will come next. In other words, treat the documentary the way he treated each story he wrote.

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