Heroes Never Rust #8 by Sean Ironman
Chris Claremont, I Miss You
For the first time, I had no idea what I was going to write about. I have a list of blog post ideas in a spiral notebook, but none really grabbed me this week. Then, I received The Uncanny X-Men Omnibus Vol. 1 in the mail a day earlier than I expected. The omnibus contains Uncanny X-Men #94 -131, Giant-Size X-Men #1, and Annual #3. After reading a few issues, I knew I needed to talk about Chris Claremont.
For those of you who don’t know, the X-Men were created in 1963 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, but after a few years the comic was nearly cancelled due to low sales. Instead, the comic just reprinted the earlier stories. Then in 1975, Giant-Size X-Men #1 written by Len Wein with art by Dave Cockrum. It introduced a new team of X-Men (Nightcrawler, Wolverine, Banshee, Storm, Colossus, Thunderbird, and Sunfire) led by Cyclops. Thunderbird and Sunfire didn’t last long, but the rest have become some of the most popular of the X-Men. With issue #96, Wein stepped down and let his co-writer, Chris Claremont take over. With issue #108, he was joined by John Byrne, who worked on the title until issue #143. Claremont went on to write The X-Men, along with The New Mutants and various mini-series, for seventeen years. Pretty much everything in the movies, animated series, and everything else a mainstream audience knows about the X-Men was created by Chris Claremont. Some of the characters he created are: Rogue, Gambit, Mr. Sinister, William Stryker, Moira MacTaggert, Kitty Pryde, Sabretooth, Emma Frost, and many more.
Recently, I’ve gotten back into X-Men comics, and have been reading Brian Michael Bendis’ All-New X-Men and Uncanny X-Men. They’re better than the X-Men have been the last few years, but they still aren’t great. I really wanted to read some great X-Men stories, so I went back to the beginning of Claremont’s run. When I got The Uncanny X-Men Vol. 1, I was afraid Claremont’s style wouldn’t hold up. After his original run, he took a few years off, and returned for another run on the main titles, and later X-Treme X-Men and X-Men Forever. But his second run never came close to matching his original run. I was afraid that the style in mainstream comics had moved so far away from Claremont’s own style, that I would find the comics boring.
Good God, these comics are fantastic. I thought at first that I might just be nostalgic for the comics of my youth, but these aren’t the comics of my youth. I was born in ’84. The X-Men of the early ‘90s were my comics.
Claremont’s early run is some of the best comics that I’ve ever read. The pacing is incredible. I feel that in the last decade, good pacing in comics has come to mean fast-paced. Claremont is able to move the main plot along while leaving room for small character moments so readers could actually get to know the new team in-between the fights. I’ve heard that Claremont is a method writer, that he spends all day in his characters’ heads. It shows. Each character shines, never going more than two issues without giving each one a strong moment. He’s able to balance the fantastic (giant robots, animal-hybrid creatures, and talking islands) with the characters’ lives beyond the uniform, something that’s been sorely lacking from most superhero comics in the past few years.
Later in the run, in issues that this volume doesn’t contain, he spends more time in the lives beyond the supervillains. One of the reasons I have so much love for the X-Men is that they fight, that they are on a team, because they want to live. It’s so simple that I can’t imagine not being able to root for them. I’ve always had a hard time with heroes like Iron Man and Batman with how long they’ve been fighting crime. But the X-Men have no choice. They don’t even really fight crime. Sure, some of what’s going on is illegal, but they also fight against the law. Hell, they can’t even go shopping on Christmas Eve without getting attacked by Sentinels (mutant-hunting robots originally funded by the U.S. government).
What the omnibus really made me realize though is how much comics have changed. The past decade, X-Men comics (and many mainstream superhero comics) have jumped from event to event. Each event advertised as a shocking, new direction for the heroes. Which might be cool if it happened once every decade or so, but when it happens so often that one event leads into the next which leads into the next, the comics (and the characters) don’t have room to breathe. In the past few years, we’ve had events such as: Age of X, Schism, Avengers vs. X-Men, Messiah Complex. It’s too much. I just want to live with the characters, let their lives play out. A big problem with too many events is the purpose of the events: to bring in new readers. By constantly restarting everything to allow new readers to jump on, nothing has consequences. Nothing that happens in the current Battle of the Atom event is going to matter a year from now. It’s like adding exclamation points to every line of dialogue in a prose story—if everything is being yelled, nothing is.
Another aspect of modern comics that has changed from when Claremont started writing the X-Men, somewhat related to the last one, is the runs of the creators on the title are much shorter on average. There are some creators that give long runs on titles, but more often than not these days, there’s a turn around on titles every few years, sometimes less. Claremont had seventeen years writing X-Men. When a second title was added, The New Mutants, Claremont wrote that too. Being able to guide the X-Men Universe for seventeen years allowed Claremont to let the characters grow and change. The line-up was altered. Magneto, the X-Men’s nemesis, was even put in charge of the school by Xavier at one point. The history of the characters were delved into over time. Characters settled down. Cyclops got married, became a father. Originally, and if it wasn’t for editorial interference, Cyclops and Jean Grey would have married and lived happily ever after, with a newer mutants taking their place. Claremont did what Stan Lee used to do. Evolve. Now, the characters are worth too much. X-Men writers also need to worry about protecting the characters for the future. Keeping characters safe isn’t the best approach to writing good fiction.
What I noticed the most was how much more prose there was. I knew Claremont, also a novelist, liked to write a lot of descriptions, but I had forgotten how good it was. His later writing felt over-stuffed with text, not allowing the art space to do its thing. But early on, there is a great balance between the two. I realized I miss the interiority of the characters—I hadn’t realized how much I missed it. Being able to see inside the minds of the X-Men as their rocket blasts off on a mission to save Jean Grey and Professor X makes the comic so much more interesting. We get to experience Peter Corbeau’s love of space, Cyclops’ love for Jean, Storm’s claustrophobia, Colossus’ fear of being helpless, and Nightcrawler’s love of adventure—and all in five small panels next to a larger shot of the rocket blasting off. These days, X-Men comics are more like storyboards for a film. The art is fantastic, but the writing is focused on dialogue, not interiority. I want more of a writer and less of a cameraman.
It’s been over two years since a Chris Claremont comic was released. The last I heard, he had signed an exclusive contract for his comics work with Marvel, but they won’t give him any assignments or take any of his ideas. I wasn’t a fan of his recent work, but it saddens me to think that this writer, who gave so much to Marvel, is being blocked from working at Marvel. Maybe the best thing for him would be to start his own work and let the characters live and grow.
Sean Ironman is an MFA candidate at the University of Central Florida, where he also serves as Managing Editor of The Florida Review and as President of the Graduate Writers’ Association. His art has appeared online at River Teeth. His writing can be read in Breakers: An Anthology of Comics and Redivider.