Like characters out of the writer's classic "Days of Future Past" story, the people at Friday's Comic-Con Spotlight panel on Chris Claremont seemed to be from two different times. Many in the audience were most interested in hearing about the past — about his working with other legendary creators and creating classic X-Men characters. But for Claremont, "the past is boring," and he was more interested in talking about whatever would get attendees to buy next Wednesday's comics. The writer was clearly excited about his current projects, including "X-Men Forever" and "X-Women."
The panel proved to be a sprawling affair. With no moderator, Claremont immediately turned the session over to questions shouted — or sometimes, it seemed, whispered — from the crowd. Without fans using a microphone, the conversation could be tough to follow at times, but the format did allow a lot of topics to be covered.
The first question was, “What was it like to work with Stan Lee?” Claremont responded by explaining how he first came to Marvel in 1968, after family friend Al Jaffe put the young writer in touch with friend Lee. At the time, Claremont was studying political theory at Bard College and saw little promise getting an internship in politics at the start of the Nixon administration. Instead, he found himself working for free in comics. "Marvel loved to take advantage of innocent bystanders," Claremont laughed. He said Lee could "charm artists literally to death," and that the longtime Marvel leader clearly wrote better and edited better than almost anyone who walked through the door. Simply put: "He's the best he is at what he does."
The next questioner wanted to know how to break into comics as a writer. "Get a job," Claremont joked. "Run for Senate." He went on to say, "It is incredibly hard to break into comics as a writer." It's easier for an artist, he explained, because visual samples can be reviewed on the spot and every editor wants "the cachet of discovering the next Frank Miller." He suggested it might be easier to break into another field and then crossover, because editors are more comfortable working with already proven talent.
Next came a question about how close a relationship the author has with translators when his work is released in foreign editions. "None whatsoever," Claremont replied, explaining that whatever company licensed the material for foreign release usually handles the translating.
The audience then offered up several questions about the early days of the all new, all different X-Men. Claremont explained that no one at Marvel had thought the book would take off (if they did, he said, Len Wein would have never turned over the book!) At the time, "we thought the industry was dying." He hoped the then-bi-monthly book would last a year or two, and maybe reach issue #100. But he was excited about the project because it gave him a chance to work with Dave Cockrum, "one of the finest storytellers and certainly one of the best idea generators" of his generation.” Of course, "X-Men" turned out to be a monster hit that helped revitalize the struggling industry. Claremont said the creative process involves throwing things out and hoping people like it. "In the X-men's case, we hit the mother load."
Responding to follow-up questions, Claremont said that working with John Byrne offered a "different fun of a totally different kind." Byrne was faster, which allowed the book to go monthly, and the artist's affection for Wolverine put that character front and center. Claremont said Cockrum and Byrne "each brought different talents and gifts" to the mix, and had kind words for Paul Smith, too. "You want to talk about a trifecta — you can't get much better than that." He said those early issues of "X-Men" built a momentum for the franchise that carries on today.
At this point, Claremont's answers seemed to grow shorter as more people raised their hands with questions. Some highlights:
On Milo Manara, his collaborator on the recently released "X-Women" project: Marvel knew the artist could handle superheroes after seeing a four-page sample. Claremont said Manara is "indescribably good."
On writer's block: Big mortgages are a great tool for getting over writer's block. When the bills are due, Claremont said, "My wife comes in and kicks my ass. Writer's block is a luxury most writers can't afford."
On Joss Whedon's writing on "Astonishing X-Men": "I think he's a great director."
On creating characters like the Morlocks: They "seemed cool" at the time. And Claremont reminded everyone they could still read his take on the characters in the pages of "X-Men Forever."
On the famous scene in "X-Men #165" where Kitty “begs Colossus for a little lovin’”: Claremont insists she was only asking for a kiss.
On digital comics: "An interesting possibility," but Claremont feels the screens are still too small. He prefers the tactile ability to turn pages and scribble down notes. Still, digital will evolve and is "something to play with."
On his favorite and least favorite characters: "The one I'm writing now" and "take your pick."
On seeing his characters on the big screen: It is cool, but would be even better with credit. Claremont also mentioned he's been told Fox's "Wolverine 2" will be based on his 1982 "Wolverine" miniseries with Frank Miller.
On when he came up with the ideas for "X-Men Forever:" The series is a mix of stories he had in his head before leaving "X-Men," and some are evolving today. He also noted that launching "X-Men Forever" was originally editor Mark Paniccia's idea.
On the comics industry's recovery from the '90s crash: It really hasn't, the writer believes. While the industry has expanded in other directions, circulation numbers continue to decline. Books considered very successful today put up numbers that barely would have kept them off the chopping block in the '70s. It's frustrating as a writer, and "not a healthy paradigm" for the industry.
As the panel wound down, Claremont gave raspberries to the convention staffer who was trying to tell him time was up. Another questioner made a final attempt to get the author to reveal tips for dealing with writer's block. Again, Claremont explained that writer's block has never been much of an issue for him: "I get the job done, then complain about the editor!"