Comic-book writer Chris Claremont is seen at his Brooklyn home, where he continues to write. Two of his classic Marvel mutant stories are source material for the upcoming movies "The Wolverine" (July 26) and "X-Men: Days of Future Past" (2014). (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)Link
"X-Men: Days of Future Past" is based on an "Uncanny X-Men" two-parter by Chris Claremont and artist John Byrne. "The Wolverine" is drawn from a miniseries Claremont did with artist Frank Miller. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)Link
Claremont took the assignment to write Marvel's revival of the X-Men in 1975. Until then, the socially scorned mutants hadn't been popular enough with readers to thrive as an ongoing title. His "Uncanny" run lasted until 1991, with the series becoming a top seller. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)Link
In addition to his "Uncanny X-Men" duties, Claremont also wrote other 'X'-projects, including the graphic novel "God Loves, Man Kills," with artist Brent Anderson. (Marvel)Link
Chris Claremont and John Byrne's "X-Men: Days of Future Past" will serve as the foundation for one of the next two "X-Men" movies. (Marvel)Link
"The Dark Phoenix Saga," which might be the most famous story in the history of X-Men comics, was also written by Claremont and drawn by Byrne. (Marvel)Link
It’s probably no coincidence that television reached a new level of critical respectability after its most serious shows embraced serialized storytelling, both as a way to hook audiences and a way to develop more novelistic depth. It’s an approach Marvel Comics already had figured out in the 1960s.
When writer-editor Stan Lee and his bullpen of artists started introducing cliffhangers, romantic melodrama and long-simmering subplots into superhero comics, Marvel suddenly became hip and popular, and was even written about in mainstream publications, long before the “comics aren’t for kids anymore” headlines of the 1980s.
Yet even more than Lee, the Marvel writer who best played to the strengths of serialization was Chris Claremont. In 1975, when Claremont was still in his mid-20s, he took the assignment to write for Marvel’s revival of “The X-Men”: a team of superpowered, socially scorned “mutants” that in their first incarnation in the 1960s had never been popular enough with Marvel readers to thrive as an ongoing title.
Under Claremont’s stewardship — aided by a string of young artists who also made their reputations on the book — “The Uncanny X-Men” became a chart-topper, spinning fan-favorite story lines that have since been adapted into the various animated “X-Men” cartoons, and nodded to in the recent blockbuster “X-Men” movies.
One of those story lines — the two-part “Days of Future Past,” co-created with artist John Byrne — is about to become one of those blockbuster movies, directed by Bryan Singer, due to be released in the summer of 2014. (Also, this summer’s “The Wolverine,” from director James Mangold, is based on a miniseries he wrote about the adamantium-clawed mutant.)
What did Claremont do that was so different from other comic book writers at that time — and even other Marvel writers? Consider just one issue from Claremont’s run: “The Uncanny X-Men” No. 118, released in 1979. The story begins with a handful of X-Men on a ship heading into Japan, where they’ll soon fight alongside an old colleague, Sunfire, against a villain threatening to sink the entire country.
The rudiments of the plot are fairly typical. What matters more is that by this point in the larger story, the X-Men had recently survived a killer circus, their arch-nemesis Magneto and a trek through the prehistoric Savage Land, all while separated from their mentor Professor X; and for the last couple of stories, they’d been mistakenly convinced that half of their members had been killed.
After the team left Japan, they’d end up in another squabble in Canada, and not until “The Uncanny X-Men” No. 122 would they return home. Not until No. 125 would they learn that their friends were still alive. Not until No. 129 would they be reunited with Professor X — at which point another desperate, long-running crisis began.
In short: Claremont never let his readers catch their breath. The X-Men tumbled headlong from one white-knuckle adventure to the next, losing and gaining members along the way, just out of circumstance. If fans picked up an issue and saw the X-Men in Japan, they knew that Claremont had just opened another door that would lead his heroes further and further away from safety and stability.
Rarely was there a beginning or an end to a Claremont-penned “X-Men” saga. The momentum — from issue to issue and year to year — was relentless.
Again, Claremont didn’t invent this method of storytelling. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby revolutionized superhero comics by using just this approach on “The Fantastic Four” in the early ’60s, and then Lee and Steve Ditko perfected it on “The Amazing Spider-Man.” (And they all owe a debt to early 20th century newspaper comics like “Little Orphan Annie,” which in turn owes Charles Dickens and other Victorian-era serializers.)
But Claremont understood these methods in a way that few others ever have, and he amplified them by stretching stories out for years, keeping readers invested in outcomes that were long in coming. More importantly: He started doing all this in the ’70s, at a time when the superhero comics getting the most attention were dreary stabs at social relevance, grappling with drugs and war and the disillusionment of youth.
Claremont’s “X-Men” stories did deal with bigotry, and his multicultural team was itself an understated plea for tolerance, but during “The Uncanny X-Men’s” rise in popularity, the series was mostly just entertaining, far beyond its contemporaries. With his “X-Men” comics, Claremont was making a combination of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “The Empire Strikes Back” while everyone else was making “Soylent Green” and “Flash Gordon.”
Even now, Claremont doesn’t get enough praise for what amounted to roughly a 10-year stretch of excellence. “X-Men” fans differ on when the golden age ends, but the initial rush begins to fade around 1985, right around the time that Marvel started spinning off “The X-Men” into multiple companion titles, some of which Claremont also wrote.
In part that’s because Claremont was just writing great pulp, and not trying to deconstruct superheroes as Frank Miller and Alan Moore were doing by the middle of Claremont’s run. In part it’s because he stuck with the X-Men and their offshoots for 17 years, and began to repeat himself toward the end. And in part it’s because a fair portion of the credit for Claremont’s best work belongs to his artists, including Dave Cockrum, Paul Smith, John Romita Jr. and (on “The New Mutants”) Bill Sienkiewicz.
Then of course there’s Byrne, who collaborated closely with Claremont on “The Uncanny X-Men’s” choicest years, and then on his own wrote and drew several years of “Fantastic Four” comics that rivaled “X-Men” for pure reading pleasure.
Still, it means something that some 30-plus years after Claremont and Byrne produced “Days of Future Past” — their jarring glimpse at where the X-Men might be headed — this simple two-parter is still better remembered by comics fans than the decades of stories that followed.
“Days of Future Past” is probably the second-most-famous X-Men story, just after “The Dark Phoenix Saga,” which was also written and drawn by — yep — Claremont and Byrne.
– Noel Murray
Noel Murray is an Eisner-nominated critic who writes about comics, television, music and film for The A.V. Club. He also covers home video for The Los Angeles Times.
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