Pipeline: Pipeline2, Issue #17: Chris Claremont

Thu, September 30th, 1999 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist

CHRIS CLAREMONT

Michael David Thomas (cueprod@aol.com) asked for a chance to extol Chris Claremont's virtues here. I took him up on the offer. My comments follow his:

    No words will adequately describe what Chris Claremont brought to the table with him when he took over writing chores of the Uncanny X-Men way back in 1974. It doesn't stop me from trying.

    My first comic that started on the slippery slide to comic collecting and reading was X-Men #141, the first part of the "Days of Future Past" storyline. John Byrne at his finest, Terry Austin at the pinnacle, Orzechowski lettering like a mother. And Claremont, like a traffic cop at the crossroads of Destiny (literally).

    I think what impressed me most was when I collected back issues of Uncanny. I eventually owned all of the ones I missed before #141. Reading the Hellfire Club stories (#130-135) and the Dark Phoenix Saga (#136-138), I remember holding back a tear when Jean Grey died (for the first time).

    It was because, in order to understand what Jean Grey's death meant, you had to see the build-up 36 issues prior. You had to see her character unfold over the course of those issues.

    It's called characterization and it's a practice rarely used within the modern comic world. Sales figures dictate more often than not what a character does rather than what that character has done in the past of its existence. Certain things we know Kitty Pryde would never do.

    And you can thank Claremont for that. He was given freer reign than anyone in letting characters almost write themselves over his tenure. Sure, it took two to three years (or longer in some cases) to tie up sub-plots. But once done, it felt right. It wasn't rushed or pushed to fulfill a marketing drive.

    It was storytelling. I can tell you individual artists who worked under Claremont. They read like a who's who of comicdom: Dave Cockrum, John Byrne, Brent Anderson, Paul Smith, John Romita, Jr., Marc Silvestri. But ultimately, Claremont stayed for 17 years to guide the ship on its right course.

    No words can adequately describe my rage and disappointment, then, when Claremont left the X-Universe. I had seen the overexposure of my favorite mutants over the years and clung to Claremont to save the whole shebang within his one title with which he was left.

    But he couldn't. Artists (like Jim Lee and Todd McFarlane) were dictating plots. Marketing was creating story crossovers that boosted sales of sagging titles, plots be damned. Marvel was trying to push well over 200 titles onto comic shelves; quality, storytelling and personal loyalty was to take a back seat.

    And the casualty was Claremont.

    Jump to September 24, 1999 (from now on known as the Day of the Second Coming). Reading casually the Marvel site and it says Claremont is back on the X-Men (both main titles). YAY!!!

    This meant that someone at Marvel pulled their head out of their butt, wiped off their eyes and saw the golden opportunity in front of them.

    For those of you that missed out the first time (and there are many) and are too poor to buy the way back issues, buy these issues that Claremont writes for the X-Men. You will understand why we suffered under people like Lobdell, Mackie and Kavanagh. You will understand why we talk like old men, saying things like, "Remember when Wolverine was only in the X-MEN?" and "Remember when Claremont gave Storm a Mohawk?"

    You will understand.

    Thanks for coming back, Chris. Hope springs eternal.

Thanks for the comments, Mike. I think you touch on a very important point that most people have forgotten and others have overused.

After Todd Klein shot to fame lettering SANDMAN using different fonts for each character, it became almost a standard for letterers. Each tried to outdo the other with fancy fonts and special balloons. It often got to the point of illegibility. Most of all, it was pointless. It's toned down quite a bit, but you can still see it in the computer lettering when Wolverine or Thor talk.

The same thing happened with plotting. Claremont didn't write nice neat plots. Not everything always wrapped up in an issue or two. Nowadays, this is considered a crime and for good reason. Today's writers, weaned on Claremont's X-Men, think they can do the same thing successfully. They haven't been able to yet.

Sure, there were a million dangling plot lines leftover when Claremont left, but the writers he left in his wake, and who trained themselves by reading X-MEN, aped that style without realizing the substance. Their plot lines dragged on forever for no good reason. Take any of the SUPERMAN books. Please. The new team of creators has promised that their plots won't go one past a month's time. Why is this so important? Because the writers before them didn't know when to close out a plot thread or a story. It lasted forever for no good reason other than to stress its importance, when there was none to be had. (We all knew Supes would eventually revert to form.)

What Claremont did was closer to plotting in real life terms. Our lives are slowly building hills and slowly descending valleys. Not everything happens in short bursts. There are no easily defined beginnings and ends. While Claremont had definite stories to tell, often they intertwined and stretched out over a period of time for good reason. It wasn't the same plot lasting for months. It was a thread of life weaving itself into the tapestry of the X-Men. (Whoa, that's too high-falutin'…)

What made SOVEREIGN SEVEN fail was that Claremont tried to bring us in en media res. We didn't know who any of these characters were, and he tried to pretend like we did right off the bat. With the X-MEN, we knew ahead of time what they're basic premise was and the characters grew out of that, each getting time in the spotlight. SOVEREIGN SEVEN, for as long as I read it, never let the individuals shine. The back story was always present, but never explained. Instead of telling a lot of little stories, I think he tried to tell one long one, punctuated with confusing bits of business. Plot overtook characters. In X-MEN, the characters took over the plot and things flowed naturally.

I think Michael's problems with the artist running the show aren't as much of an issue today. Although artists are credited together with the writer these days as "storytellers," they aren't really co-plotting anymore. (The obvious exception is when Alan Davis is plotting and penciling.) The trick there is to have an editor who sees the job through properly and gets the artist to draw what the writer asks for. (See Travis Charest ignoring Scott Lobdell on WILDCATS and Matt Broome ignoring Chuck Dixon on BATMAN, for two examples.)

But to be fair to Jim Lee and company, let's remember that the Golden Age of the X-Men for many is that time period when John Byrne and Chris Claremont were collaborating on the plots. I don't know how far it went in the early 90s, but there was a period time there when it seemed like the then-Homage Studios was controlling the stories more than Claremont. Most of the details that have come to the surface over Claremont's decision to leave the book point to editorial differences between he and Harras. The nature of some of those disagreements might have been art-related, but who knows.

In any case, Claremont's two strengths for me are his plotting and his characters. The Claremontian Woman is practically an archetype in comics today, often attempted by other writers but rarely achieved. His characters all seem well thought-out, complete with differing accents, speech patterns, fears, origins, and character tics.

His dialogue is often lambasted as being redundant. You write the same book for 15 years and try not to repeat yourself. OK, that's a very small defense, but it was those small catch phrases that characters used which helped to define them instantly in the readers' minds. The funny thing about a Claremont book is that you can often tell he wrote it by the shape and number of word balloons. Lots of little balloons. In some moments, often balloons only occupy one word as a character expresses fear or disgust or anxiousness.

I'm not going to give Claremont a free pass when he comes back in March. He obviously has a lot to live up to. He's going to have to adapt to characters that might be completely unrecognizable to him. Let's hope he can accept the changes they've been through and, in some cases, fix the damage that's been done, all the while doing something new with them. For even when the writers and artists have stunk, the characters survive and are fan favorites. That's to Claremont's credit.

It's also a different world from Claremont's time, when he wrote or co-wrote all the mutant books. He won't have that control anymore and so continuity will suffer, and his stories may have to once in awhile, as characters aren't available from other books.

This gets back to the whole writer/editor position I talked briefly about in Monday's column. The relationship between Bob Harras - who has done more to destroy certain segments of the Marvel Universe through his commands and decisions than even John Byrne - and Claremont will be the key here.

So we'll sit back and Monday morning quarterback come March. Cross your fingers.

[Oh, and if you can't afford those original Claremont issues, don't fret. ESSENTIAL X-MEN volumes 1 through 3 will give you a good head start! They're great reads!]

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