The X-Men Files

“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?”

“He lived it and breathed it,” remembers Harras. “He would write whole paragraphs about what people were wearing. He really got into these people’s thoughts, hopes, dreams.”

In his mind, Claremont was writing the Great American Novel about complex characters who just happened to fly. In one of his early issues, for example, Wolverine revealed to his teammates that his claws were not merely tools but weapons attached to his skeleton. The others, none of whom could be described as normal, recoiled in shock. Such emotional nuances, inserted amid operatic battles, were key to holding readers’ interest. “We tried to do 70-millimeter comics,” says Claremont, “wide-screen cinematic productions about intimate stories.”

To fans, Claremont was a four-color visionary, a pulp-and-ink George Lucas who all but invented his own mythology. “Ninety percent of what’s X-related now grows out of my work,” he says. To Marvel, Claremont was a writer-for-hire who wasn’t entitled to any copyright ownership over what he created. And since superhero comics are slavishly driven by sales figures, he could be overruled.

In 1980, Claremont began one of his most ambitious multi-issue epics, a storyline fans refer to as the Dark Phoenix saga. Sometime after the character Jean Grey gained godlike powers and took the name Phoenix, she turned power-hungry, attacked her teammates, and destroyed an entire alien planet. Claremont and artist John Byrne were deliberately messing with superhero archetypes. The question was, Claremont says, “Could we turn a hero into a villain and get away with it?”

As it turned out, they couldn’t. Against Claremont’s wishes, Marvel’s editor-in-chief at the time demanded that Phoenix’s crime have consequences. Claremont killed her off – a major event in a medium where heroes aren’t supposed to die.

“Looking at the story again from years ago when I was thinking about finishing it, I suddenly realized: How can you have a hero who’s helpless?”

He grieved over the loss of one of his favorite characters, but he needn’t have bothered. Six years later, when Marvel wanted to start another spin-off comic, she was brought back to life. In true soap-opera style, it turned out that the Phoenix the X-Men had fought was not actually Jean Grey but a powerful alien force who had assumed her likeness.

As his dissatisfaction grew, Claremont’s plots became increasingly violent. “I started a story line in which the heroes were ineffectual in the face of evil,” he recalls. “While they could defeat the immediate evil, the supervillain, they were unable to prevent the greater evil. It was about feeling helpless in the face of events beyond your control.”

He laughs. “See what I mean about subtext and the id writing the books for you?”

In 1991, the company launched a second X-Men comic, called simply X-Men (the title of the original comic had changed to The Uncanny X-Men). The first issue was one of the best-selling single comic books ever. By that time, Claremont was flying to comic-book conventions on his personal plane.

But he could still be overruled. When the new series was launched, Harras wanted to bring back Professor X, whom Claremont had basically written out of the comic. (“He’s the guy who tells you what the series is about,” Harras explains.) Claremont was against it. This time, instead of giving in, he quit. “It was time,” he says. “There were things that I wanted to do that I couldn’t do here.”

Most Wednesdays, the younger generation of Marvel employees gathers for after-work drinks at the Bank Cafe, a dive on East 30th Street. Over bottles of beer and Citron on the rocks, most of the conversation centers on Marvel’s in-house Wiffle Ball league and the group’s shared love for eighties rock groups like Culture Club.

Have they seen the movie?

“We’re looking forward to it,” says Mike Marts, editor of two other X-Men titles.

“Yeah,” says his assistant, Mike Raicht. “It’s supposed to be pretty cool.”

No one at Marvel – not even Claremont – has been offered an early screening. The closest Marts got was reading an early version of the script to produce a comic-book adaptation of the movie, a task for which he wasn’t paid extra.

The comic he produced could also be considered competition for the flagship title, because it offers an easier entry point for new readers. After a quarter-century of plot twists, Marvel editors are beginning to worry that picking up an issue of X-Men as a new reader is about as easy as starting to watch The X-Files during the second half of the fifth season. “It’s nearly impossible for the casual reader to follow that many different threads and that many different characters,” says Brian Hibbs, owner of the San Francisco store Comix Experience.

Things started getting confusing around the time Claremont left, when Marvel found the instant success of anything related to the X-Men impossible to resist. There was X-Factor, chronicling the exploits of the original sixties X-Men. There was Excalibur, about a British team of X-Men. There was Generation X, aimed at younger readers. Just as the original title held to its comic-book continuity, all of these series ran interlocking plots, requiring the writers of each to keep up with every single character in all of them. Eventually, the die-hard fans knew the story lines better than they did.

Claremont’s eventual replacement, Scott Lobdell, didn’t clear up any of the confusion, at least partly because he wrote more of the special-event crossovers that involved – and sold more copies of – the ever-increasing number of X-Men-related comics. One of the most popular was a four-month story line involving all the X-Men series called “The Age of Apocalypse.”

The idea was that someone had gone back in time and killed Professor X before he had formed the X-Men. Then all the X-Men comics changed “because history had changed,” Lobdell explains without irony. Naturally, the saga ended when “history” was restored.

Needless to say, Lobdell wasn’t exactly a Method man. “I always got the impression that Chris could tell you what Ororo Storm had for breakfast in the morning,” Lobdell says. “I never thought about the characters until I was sitting in front of the computer.”

Lobdell profited more than Claremont from the X-Men’s success – he made about $85,000 a month. But eventually, the grind got to him too. By his late-nineties peak, Lobdell was putting in 70-hour weeks writing three of the five top X-Men comics. Editor Mark Powers says he left when he began missing deadlines. Lobdell says he simply lost his enthusiasm in the face of pressure to keep the series static. “I think Marvel was thinking, Let’s appeal to fans of the book since the seventies by bringing back characters from that period like Nightcrawler and Colossus and Kitty Pryde – and ultimately Chris Claremont.”

Meanwhile, Claremont was finding that the artistic freedom for which he left X-Men came with a smaller stage. In 1994, he signed a deal to develop a team of new characters for DC Comics to which he would retain the copyrights, but the comic was canceled after only three years. The same year, he was commissioned to write a trilogy of fantasy novels based on the George Lucas movie Willow. “I met with him for a whole day out at the ranch, which was a treat,” says Claremont. “April 1, 1994 – it was the only free day he had that entire spring.” Lucas never found another free day. “But after the first novel,” Claremont says, with all the enthusiasm he can muster, “he gave me top billing.”

Even before Lobdell left, Harras realized he needed help – Marvel’s sales were declining, and the comics were getting harder to follow. He and Claremont hadn’t spoken in five years. Then in 1995, at the annual August comics convention in San Diego, Harras spotted Claremont at an outdoor buffet. Partly because a friend bet him $5 that he wouldn’t have the nerve, Harras went up to him at a picnic table. Suddenly, the whole place fell silent. “It was like one of those old E.F. Hutton commercials,” recalls Harras.

Two years later, Claremont returned to Marvel as Harras’s No. 2, with the title of vice-president-editorial director. He says maturity had something to with his decision – he now lives in Park Slope with his wife, a former editor at Ace, and their twin 2-year-old boys. But he says he came back mostly because sitting on the sidelines as Marvel reeled made him realize that the company – and the characters – needed his touch. As he says, “People didn’t go to see the Star Trek movies for the special effects.” Even if a few did, he wasn’t about to let that stop him.

Judging from the human traffic jam Claremont causes during an unannounced visit to a comics convention at Madison Square Garden one recent Sunday, his fans needed him, too. Dressed incognito in blue cargo shorts and a flowery Hawaiian shirt, he immediately spots some old friends, including a few laid-off Marvel artists selling their original art. One asks if he has any work for freelancers.

Pretty soon a trail of fans clutching X-Men comics, mostly men in their thirties and forties, has gathered behind him. There isn’t a teenager among them. “Is that Chris Claremont?” asks one. “I didn’t recognize him with a smile on his face.”

Plopping himself down in an unmarked booth, Claremont takes out a felt marker and watches as a line forms in front of him. One by one, he begins scribbling his name across the X-Men logo.

“Looking at the story again from years ago when I was thinking about finishing it, I suddenly realized: How can you have a hero who’s helpless?” he asks with a knowing smirk. “What the X-Men were about ten years ago was being against forces beyond their control. What they’re about now is transcending that – finding a way to win no matter what. Even in the face of the greatest adversity, the key is to never lose hope, never lose sense of the dream that drives you. That whatever happens, we’ll find a way to win.”

The X-Men Files