Sunday, October 16, 2011

NYCC Exclusive: The Chris Claremont Experience

It turns out Comic Con isn't about the costumes, or the breaking news, or the previews, or even the free swag. Turns out if you keep at it, there's a moment, a pure fanboy moment that will leave you grinning for hours. And I just had mine.

Yup. That right there is Chris Claremont.

At 1:15pm on Sunday October 16th, Paul Levitz of Legion of Superheroes fame and Chris Claremont, the legendary writer of Uncanny X-Men, had a small panel in the back of the meeting hall. Nothing fancy, a tiny room with a full attendance, and these two legends chatting and shooting the shit and answering questions. And it was the best thing NYCC has given me all weekend.

The panel was great, but the moment of personal triumph was even better. I'll get to that in a little bit.

Essentially, Levitz and Claremont began speaking informally about writing in general. They spoke to the motivation required ("Oh crap, the rent's due!) and to the involved process of collaboration. In the spitballing and the brainstorming of ideas, they believe in pursuing what comes naturally to them as storytellers so long as it is surprising to the audience. They believe in holding on to a silly idea and running with it to see if it works. They spoke about the importance of collaborating closely with the artist, trusting them to develop those things they had expertise in, such as how the first three issues of Claremont's X-Treme X-Men took place in Seville, because that was where the artists Salvador LaRocca was living at the time. In the end, however, the collaboration process is so involved and, well, collaborative, that they hardly remember who came up with which particular idea by the time they left the room.

Inevitably the topic of strong females in Claremont's writing came up. Historically this is a strength of Claremont's, and he encouraged the tendency of "running to type." That is, if he feels it's natural to create characters like Rogue and Kitty Pryde, and to focus on Storm, then stick to that, trust the personal instincts and style you possess, and dive completely into it.

Claremont referenced his upbringing and his mother as a clear influence on his work with women in comics. His mother, he told us, was on active duty in the RAF, working at a radar station in the South of England. The Luftwaffe would try to destroy her station daily, and her and her team fought them off and repaired the damages, also daily. She spent the last 40 years of her life just flying planes for fun.
In addition he had a dear friend, also a woman, whom he heard once when randomly listening to NPR one morning. She was in Sarajevo, getting shot at.

The point being (and this was a theme throughout the panel) that you take inspiration from the people you know. You steal the reality of people's lives, that reality became his trope. He feels no shame in stealing from the emotional lives of his friends and acquaintances, and in fact finds it necessary. The more crazy superhero stuff that happens, the more the story needs to be grounded in reality, to connect to the reader and provide a balance.

In fact his favorite moments when writing Uncanny were those moments when the team was at home in the mansion, playing baseball. (He specifically referenced when Colossus hit the ball into the atmosphere, Rogue flew up to catch it and spotted Air Force One, upon which she smooched President Reagan's window.) Or when Wolverine would stumble home drunk. The real life stuff that resonates with readers and with himself. And storywise provides a breath of fresh air before the aliens land in the backyard and spirit them off to another galaxy. There needs to be that balance

Levitz chimed in to connect that to the constant life of a writer, saying that a writer will be eating dinner at a restaurant, and upon observing the people at the next table over, he instinctively assigns stories to them. Not for the sake of reusing them, just as a constant state of existence. However if you do end up using them, all the better.

The issue of using the events of the world, which Claremont had been known for, was touched upon by Levitz as well, who is currently writing a miniseries on DC's character The Huntress. It was given to him as a project where they asked him to write about the Huntress in Italy. As a result, he has jokes about Berlusconi, he has the unending trash strike stinking up Naples, and he has a human trafficking ring that passes through the city. The goal is to create and build a true lie.

During the questions portion, one person asked about the fallout of Jean Grey's resurrection, after Claremont had written such a meaningful death for her. Claremont responded with an admission that the decision led to a "forthright, unambiguous exchange of views." Then he told an anecdote about how Ann Nocenti, then editor of X-books, broke the news to him Friday evening when they were out for drinks, upon which he exited the restaurant to call the editor and rage, but, as Ann clearly knew, by then it was 6:30 and he was out of touch for the weekend.

So Chris came in on Monday, with cooler heads, and pitched a story I had never heard of that obviously was not expected. He wanted to use Sara Grey, Jean's sister, and give her powers that had somehow been catalyzed by her proximity to the Phoenix Force. Not only would she be a Grey, with powers, but she would be single, open to romance with anyone; Scott, Logan, Warren, Hank, even Professor X, who was at that time occassionaly described as being in love with Jean grey. The suspense and tension of her sister stepping into the team, of her anxiety that she was going down the same path as Jean, was full of dramatic potential. But alas a return of Jean was more marketable, so his pitch was not accepted. In the end, it was just something he had to deal with. These aren't his characters, and it's for the most part not even his story, so the only thing left to do is be professional.

In truth, if you are allowed to mess around with characters who have existed for years, to build off the writers that came before you, then you also understand it will eventually happen to you. The next generation will take what you've done somewhere you may dislike, but that's just how the business works.

Claremont even made a joke about varying tastes, saying you can be a fan of Robert Downey Jr.'s Sherlock Holmes, or the Holmes on BBC. Both are very weird but they tell great stories, though he does keep waiting for a TARDIS to appear on the TV show.

Speaking to the construction of group books and team dynamics, Claremont said one of his moves was that at the end of an arc, he would scramble the cast. That is, put one of the background characters on the front stage for an issue or two, see how it works. He brought up a particular moment (from the same issue as the baseball/Reagan incident, keep that in mind) where Cyclops had a wife and a baby, but was also team leader of the X-Men. Thus he had Storm fight and beat him for leadership, moved Scott to Alaska where he would fly planes and raise his child. Eventually his son would grow up to join the X-Men perhaps, but for all intents and purposes, Scott was done. Well, that clearly didn't work out, but Claremont's point is that life evolves, and each generation needs characters to bond to. Teams shuffle and change and reform and grow, just like real people.

A Graduate Student on Vietnamese History, and an X-Men fan, asked Claremeont about his inspiration for the character Karma of the New Mutants. Claremont referenced the second incarnation of the X-Men and how they wanted it to be international; Storm from Africa, Colossus from Russia, Kurt from Germany, etc. He believes a writer should use the world, so for the following generation of New Mutants we had Karma, and then Roberto DaCosta from Brazil, Magma from ancient Rome, Rahne from Scotland, and so on. Even his brief reboot of Excalibur, featuring Xavier and Magneto living in the rubble of Genosha, was intended to debut several purely African heroes from all over the continent.

The question that caused the biggest reaction was poised by a very young boy (I'd say 8 years old but that seems to be my go to guess for kids' ages.) He asked, quite simply and directly: "You know Jean Grey and Cyclops and Wolverine? Who would Jean Grey choose to be her true love?" The small crowd erupted, and Claremont shook his head and laughed before declaring it the best question he's been asked by a fan in the last five years. His answer? He honestly doesn't. He suggested the kid ask the current Uncanny writer, as it's his problem now, but he admitted how much fun it would be to play with that again.

Then he made a slight reference to the current state of X-affairs, about how now Wolverine was not the psychotic loner but instead nurturing and running a school; Logan and Scott have somehow turned into versions of each other. I would have loved to hear more about his opinions on where the X-Men are now, but time was out and that alone was a very interesting observation.

With the panel over and the crowd filing out, I opened my bag. Inside was one of my favorite comics of all time, which, knowing I was attending a Claremont panel today, I dug out of its box and brought with me. Uncanny X-Men #201:

In this seminal issue, the X-Men play a baseball game. Colossus murders Kitty's fastball, and Rogue flies up to catch it, where she encounters Reagan on Air Force One. After the baseball game, Scott argues with his wife about caring for their child, and Storm challenges him to a duel to see who should lead the X-Men. Storm wins and takes over the team, and Scott moves to Alaska to make an attempt at a normal life. Any of this sound familiar?

It's called fate my friends. That was so clear to me that I, your anxiety riddled amateur blogger and solitary fanboy, pulled out my issue, went up to the legend himself, and asked him to sign the scene he had been speaking about. Feast your eyes:

Well, I thanked him, took some more pictures, began a solid hour of grinning, and have since walked around the Jacob Javits Center with rose colored disposable Acuvu contact lenses.

Friday was pleasant, Saturday was a challenge, but Sunday was divine. New York Comic Con, I finally get it. Thank you. 'Nuff said.


  1. Thanks for this! Great stuff. I'm going through the X-Men Forevers and just googled Claremont NYCC 2011 and this came up. Exactly what I was looking for.

  2. Thanks a lot! Yeah, it was the best part of the whole con for me. I keep staring at my signed #201 and thinking I should frame it, but I'll still always want to read it.

    I need to go back to the Forevers too. I didn't love having evil storm, so that took me out of it, but I should give it another shot.

    I really wish we could've gotten to see his proposed Sara Grey storyline! That was the coolest bit of trivia I learnt. Maybe he'll stick them in a new Forever volume.

    Thanks for reading!

  3. I was there too and I couldn't believe my eyes someone got that issue (which Claremont was openly mentioned) out of his bag and got Claremont sign it. Today I googled the web to see if someone got the panel covered and that's YOU! You're so lucky! I got very jealous! I'll also never forgethow happy you seemed to be while exiting the room. :)

  4. Oh my god! How fantastic! And very kind of you to comment!

    I really WAS beaming, and it lasted several hours, weaving through the big Hall A grinning like an idiot.

    It was such a great panel, I'm glad you got to experience it yourself as well. And yeah, I cannot believe I had that issue in my bag--it had Rogue kissing Reagan's window, Storm dueling Cyclops, and the baseball game--he mentioned all 3 separately without even saying the issue!

    Seriously, thanks for the google, and reading, and commenting, and even remembering the total joy of a complete stranger. This is why we love comic cons, huh?

    Hope you had a great weekend there, and a good rest of day. I went to XMen panel after, and took my picture in that life size Honorary Avenger action figure box thing, which was all lovely, but nothing compared to Claremont.

    Thanks again!! You just made this amateur blogger's entire day :-)