"Once the disease activates," says Chris Claremont, a fiendish grin dancing across his face, "let's say we find an isolated town and -- boom! -- everybody instantly has powers." Eagerly rocking forward in a beat-up old swivel chair, the writer of the X-Men comics looks across the office of Marvel Comics editor-in-chief Bob Harras, where two colleagues sit at attention under a cardboard blowup of Captain America. They're waiting for him to wring another plotline out of Stryfe, a villain that has menaced the X-Men before.
A merry Falstaff in stretch-waist khakis and boat shoes, Claremont, 49, raises a chubby finger and continues: "But nobody knows how to use them."
Pete Franco, a spiky-haired assistant editor in his twenties, gnaws at a toothpick. "You saying everybody in the town has an X-factor?"
"No!" barks Claremont. "The thing about the Legacy virus is that it will leave mutants alone. But in nonmutants, it grafts the X-gene onto them and triggers it."
"What does that mean?" counters Franco.
"The disease has mutated," Claremont says. He leans back again, satisfied. "It's like The Andromeda Strain."
Franco isn't buying this, and Harras, the only man in the room wearing a tie, intervenes from behind his desk. "I don't mind the virus mutating at some point," Harras tells Claremont, "but turning humans into mutants is a bad idea."
"It feels wrong," adds Mark Powers, who edits the X-Men comic books. "Everyone can't be a mutant."
If the story is more about people than about superheroes, wonders Harras, "how is it an X-Men story?"
One could argue that it is an X-Men story simply because it was thought up by Chris Claremont, who transformed a single underachieving comic into the best-selling superhero franchise of its time. From 1975 to 1991, Claremont wrote bimonthly and then monthly installments of an edgy, ambitious, often grandiose epic that eventually spawned eleven continuing related series. By the early nineties, the flagship X-Men comic was circulating roughly 500,000 copies a month, a second series with the same characters -- among them, Cyclops, Storm, and the phenomenally popular Wolverine -- sold 7.6 million copies of its first issue, and both series and their various spin-offs represented 20 percent of comics sales in the United States. And though he didn't create most of the heroes or write all the related comic books, Claremont's characterizations and alienation-filled aesthetic are central to the $75 million X-Men movie that opens Friday.
All that, and he's still getting overruled by an editor barely older than some of the characters he's created.
Truth is, Claremont's heroes have been weakened by market oversaturation and blasted by Marvel's business difficulties. (A takeover battle between former owner Ronald Perelman and corporate raider Carl Icahn resulted in bankruptcy. Marvel later merged with Toy Biz but is still recovering.) The Uncanny X-Men now sells only about 200,000 copies an issue, though it's still one of the most popular comics around. And after leaving Marvel to create a comic for DC and try his hand at science-fiction novels, Claremont came back to Marvel in 1997 as editorial director, and recently as X-Men writer, to safeguard his legacy. Which is not to be confused with his mutant virus of the same name.
If Stan Lee brought mainstream comics into the sixties by making characters like Spider-Man fallible and even neurotic, Claremont helped reinvigorate them for the eighties and nineties by making his heroes morally ambiguous and downright tortured. He also took advantage of the medium's monthly format to tell interlocking, often convoluted stories that stretched across dozens of issues.
Conceived in 1963 by Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby, the X-Men were genetic mutants born with superpowers who were brought together by their mentor, the paraplegic telepath Professor X (played by Patrick Stewart in the movie). But the comic never caught on as well as Lee's other creations, and by 1975, writer Len Wein and artist Dave Cockrum introduced a new team of X-Men. It was a more diverse group: The Canadian Wolverine had enhanced senses, metal claws, and a short temper; the German Nightcrawler had demonic looks, a tail, and the ability to teleport; the African Storm could control the weather; the Russian Colossus could transform his body into superstrong steel; the American Cyclops, returning from the original team, could shoot "optic beams" that were held in check only by special glasses.
After the first issue, Wein handed the series to Claremont, who played up Lee's idea that the X-Men were outsiders, hated and feared because they were mutants. Charged by Professor X with learning to use their powers for good, they were famously conflicted about their mission (Storm), their freakishness (Nightcrawler), and their urge toward violence (Wolverine). Characters fell in love, died, killed, sometimes even developed.
"People try to pigeonhole comics by saying they're just for kids," says Claremont, who cites Kipling and C. S. Forester as influences. "So is The Odyssey. So is the Labors of Hercules, the story of Fa Mulan. The advantage of those stories over the contemporary ones is that they've had 2,000 years of editing. All the crap has been weeded out over time."
"Sometimes the comics cater to children and sometimes more to adults," says Bryan Singer, director of the X-Men movie (as well as The Usual Suspects), "but they always include issues like prejudice." Singer was especially interested in the X-Men villain Magneto (Ian McKellen), who fights them over ideology as much as anything else. Magneto wants to protect mutants by any means necessary -- usually by taking over the world -- while Professor X believes humans and mutants can learn to live together. "To use Martin Luther King's idea," says Claremont, "judge them by the content of their character, not the color of their skin." He pauses. "Or the number of arms they have."
Actually, Claremont says he always saw Professor X and Magneto as echoes of David Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin. "My view of Magneto" -- originally created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby as a magnetic-powered supervillain who wanted to take over the world -- "is that he's the terrorist who might someday evolve into a statesman."
In the film, Singer played up Professor X's similarities to Magneto. "They're both cut very much from the same cloth," he says. "I like to think of them as brothers."
All the allegory only made the comic more intense. "There's a certain darkness, because the X-Men's true enemy is hate, which is something that's never going to go away," says Powers. "The X-Men have a kind of integrity, they tell certain truths. I think kids pick up on that."
Adolescents also found it easy to identify with alienated anti-heroes who had better luck saving the universe than fitting in or coming to terms with their mutated physiques. "X-Men," says Claremont, "has always been about finding your place in a society that doesn't want you."
Born in England but raised primarily on Long Island, Claremont didn't even collect comics growing up, although he read science-fiction writers like Robert Heinlein. The son of an internist and his wife, a pilot and caterer, he says he felt alienated by the sports-oriented suburbs.
In the late sixties and early seventies, Claremont studied acting and political theory at Bard College. After graduation, he tried to launch a career as a character actor while working part-time as an editorial assistant at Marvel. "I did John Hancock in a dinner-theater production of 1776 in Charlotte," he recalls. "Actually, I was the replacement."
He was more appreciated at Marvel, where he soon took a full-time position. Wein, then Marvel's editor-in-chief, recognized Claremont's enthusiasm for the new X-Men he and Cockrum had created because "I used to hang out during the plotting sessions," says Claremont. Wein needed someone to take over the troubled bimonthly, and "no one's nose was going to get out of joint if a comparatively young writer got the gig."
Claremont made his mark immediately. Inspired by his acting, he took the Method approach to fleshing out his superheroes. "What are their goals in life?" he says. "Who does the dishes? What kind of music do they listen to?"