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Interview: A conversation with comics legend Chris Claremont

The Longbox Theory

The issue that started it all, Uncanny X-Men #94

The issue that started it all, Uncanny X-Men #94

Writer Chris Claremont is a titan of the comic’s industry. His historic run on the X-Men featured the most memorable stories associated with the title, including The Dark Phoenix Saga, Days of Future Past and the graphic novel, God Loves, Man Kills.

Many of Claremont’s stories, including the aforementioned, have made the jump to the screen, both large and small, having been adapted for Fox‘s successful film franchises as well as several live action and animated television shows.

During his 17-year involvement with the X-Men, Claremont created and introduced dozens of characters who’d go on to become fan-favorites. At the financial height of their popularity, Marvel launched a second X-Men title written by Claremont. The first issue of the book still holds the all-time sales record with over 8 million copies sold.

In his nearly 50 year career, Chris Claremont has seen firsthand the highs and lows of an industry that has now entered the mainstream consciousness at levels few ever imagined were possible (hit shows, blockbuster films), yet paradoxically seems on the brink of extinction as readership steadily declines and comics themselves become ever harder to find. Salute sat down with this legend to get his unique perspective on the hobby we love so dearly.

Where do you see the industry? How far has it come or fallen—taking into account self-published work, small press, web comics, etc.?
The frustration…well, there is a tremendous amount of opportunity, yes. The challenge with that, unfortunately, is that the opportunity doesn’t carry with it equivalent opportunity to earn an appropriate return on the investment of time and talent. The thing is, 20 years ago you had mainstream publishers offering potential high five, six figure advances for original graphic novels—that doesn’t exist anymore. You had mainstream comic book publishers offering significant upfront payments plus the opportunity for what was referred to generally as “sales incentives.”

It was a way at that period of time to redress the downside of the industry that had existed in the forties, fifties, sixties and seventies, when you just worked for page rate. Now the page rate is the primary source of income and even that has been modified depending on the publisher, so the economic realities of the mainstream industry are a lot more harsh than many creators have been used to.

By the same token, the fact that both Marvel and DC are integrated into much larger corporate…factories, though that’s an unfortunately pejorative word…that are equally interested in producing spin-off variants on the core material, films…
Take Black Panther as an example. What you have, is a well-regarded, never terribly successful comic book series, and it’s not only breaking sales records on a global basis, it is in terms of an approach to telling a story and [featuring] a cast that is revolutionary in contemporary film… as a contrast, you have Justice League, which went through a number of evolutions, going from production to release and you have people wondering if DC will even do another one.

And that’ll depend on how Aquaman does, and presumably the second Wonder Woman…but at the same time, the fact that Disney/Marvel is, I understand, investing a billion dollars into the production of Infinity War?! Holy Crumb cakes! Compare that! “Well, we’re doing this story for a billion dollars! How much is it going to cost to do an issue of the Avengers?” Uh, I don’t know, twenty-five thousand? [Laughs] If we really push it! [Laughs] But that’s it—how do you compare—the disparity between the necessities to produce a film and what is required to produce a good comic story, are unimaginable. And yet, the paradox is, without the good comic story to produce source material, to keep the perception of the characters alive in the reading audience, how fresh can you keep the films? That’s the brute reality.

Before the days of "event fatigue" the Marvel mutants "fell"

Before the days of “event fatigue” the Marvel mutants “fell”

How could or should the comics industry work to convert movie fans into readers?
The basic way is, and I’m totally old school in this, you create really cool characters that the audience cares about… and then you put them through hell. For me the biggest and most fatal mistake that Jim Shooter [Marvel’s former EIC], Marvel and the retailers ever did was look at the Fall of the Mutants that Louise Simonson and I put together because we wanted to get rid of a bunch of characters, the cast was too big and we wanted to get rid of them, and think “wow, this crossover was a big success, lets do another one.” The problem is, and I may be in the minority in this, I’ve noticed as a reader of comics both at Marvel and DC, is that everything has become increasingly homogenized.

The storytelling is defined by a big event. And everything is geared towards plotting out the structure so we’ll have this event, or that event—and any individuality, any sense of personality, any sense of intimacy between the audience and the characters seems to suffer in the balance. The whole point is, there’s less interest in telling great stories—just making a great product. Doing great commercial product. “We’ll hit our numbers for this quarter and move on.” And while that might work from a purely economic, corporate standpoint, I think the disadvantage is you lose a significant sense of intimacy and sense of creation. Things shouldn’t be geared towards events. If you’re going to have an event, it should be the kind of thing that really grows organically, out of the course of a story.

I think the other crucial catastrophic event that’s happened over the last decade or more, 20 years or more, is the emphasis on compilations. I grew up professionally in an industry where Stan‘s dictum was “you tell a story in one issue, two if it’s really good, two and a half if it’s Galactus and the Silver Surfer.” But you hit your mark every month. You introduce the characters to readers every month, so each issue becomes a potential entry point.

And what’s happened over the years is the production of books is geared towards compilations. “We’re going to do a five or six issue trade paperback.” So everyone writes to trade paperbacks—which is great—except if you’re buying on the monthly? If you’re buying them from a comic book store, or wherever you can find them—which there aren’t that many outlets any more, unfortunately—if you miss the first issue, or you miss the third and the retailer sells out, you’re sort of screwed. You have to wait for the trade. But if the trade doesn’t come along, or by the time it does, you’re interested in something else, you’re lost as a reader.

So the thing that’s always scared me is, if you’re a publisher and you have a massive crossover…what if it’s a dud? Archie Goodwin had a remarkably prescient comment, “If you fuck up, you got 30 days to fix it.” But if you fuck up, and you’re in the first act of a forty issue mega-series involving seven integrated titles, what the hell are you gonna do? But the other side of that is, Marvel especially made much of its reputation with dependable teams; pick up an issue of X-Men, it’s Claremont and Cockrum, or Claremont and Byrne. You picked up an issue of Daredevil and it’s Miller, or Thor and it’s Simonson. But if you change artist every issue? It usually takes a team two to three issues of working together to get to know what you can do. What stories you can tell, or how to tell the artist to produce kick-ass pictures, what works and what doesn’t… but if by the time you get to that point, this artist has been yanked from the book, and you have to deal with someone brand new—someone who may not have that same simpatico sense with what you’re telling them or the stories you’re doing—you’re shooting yourself in the foot.

More importantly, each time you change the reality of the book, the visual reality, the way the story is told, you’re giving the reader an excuse not to read it…you never want to do that! The best comment I ever got, and on one level it’s heartbreaking but another level it was a “wow” moment, is a young woman telling me that she was in tears because her husband had told her that she was going to have to give up comics because their kids were old enough to read now, and comics were not appropriate reading material for their household. He’d tolerated it for her, as long the kids were too young to read it, but now that they could, he didn’t want them corrupted. So she was giving them up—and she was sobbing as she told me this. And I thought, “That’s awful!” but “That’s so cool.” [Laughs] Which I suppose tells you something contemptible about me! [Laughs] But the point is, the fact that people were lined up the third Thursday of the month at the comic book store, was wonderful.

That to me was my equivalent of community groups buying out whole theaters, so they could bring all the community to see Black Panther because this was important—this mattered! If you just throw stuff out there, and expect people to simply come in out of habit, you’re going to have an audience that can just give it up out of habit! There’s too much other stuff to get involved with. If you’re going to tell stories to these people, you have to tell stories that are going to make them care! About the characters and the choices they make—you have to be able to look at them [the characters] and say, “I know people like that! I’ve been in situations like that! Holy Cow—they’re like me!” Sorry, that’s my rant for the day.

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  1. Nick Feratu

    March 15, 2018 at 3:49 pm

    I love how blunt Claremont is in his assessments. The man is a huge talent and I hope he’s able to live comfortably (ie: financially stable, etc) considering the great works he’s done in his career. X-Men is still my favorite after all these years thanks to his contributions.

  2. Blue Eyed Guy

    March 15, 2018 at 10:16 pm

    The 80s and early 90s were such a great and exciting time for the X-Men. It was a fun time to be reading. That’s what’s missing today: Fun. Claremont gets it. I applaud him for staying on that title for as long as he did and keeping every issue in continuity (another thing sorely missing in comics today).

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