Marvel Comics, in itself, has spawned and helped grow
the careers of dozens of writers and artists, many of which have gone onto
making their own successful series that have impacted the comic genre. But in
the process very few of those people have had the opportunity to reshape the
Marvel universe into what we know it today.
Chris Claremont has been one of the most influential writers at Marvel for the past forty years. Being the driving force behind Uncanny X-Men for most of the 70's and 80's, helping co-create dozens of characters I can't begin to list, and successfully made spin-off titles like Excalibur, Captain Britain, Wolverine and New Mutants. His creations and storylines have been key pieces to every animated X-Men series as well as the films, and his writing continues today in titles like X-Men Forever. Chris will be in town as a guest of Night Flight Comics for a reading and chat at the Downtown Library, Saturday from 6:30-8PM. Showing the latest issue of X-Men Forever, and for the first time anywhere will be reading from his upcoming novel Wild Blood. I got a chance to briefly chat with Chris while he was in the middle of meeting deadlines and preparing for his trip out, about his early career and what we can expect from him down the road. (All artwork copyright Marvel, art by Paul Smith (pencils) and Terry Austin (inks) on newest work.)
Gavin: Hey Chris! First off, tell us a little bit about yourself.
Chris: A little bit? Hard for someone who came of age when writers were paid by the word. Born in England after WWII. My mother is a social worker who spent several years working with London kids who had not been evacuated to the countryside during the Blitz, who had lost their parents, their homes, and had their schooling interrupted. My father was a doctor who became a chest physician because his brother was shot through the lungs and then contracted TB while flying for the RAF. We emigrated to the States, my mother and I shuttling back and forth between the States and England while I was a little kid. My father was drafted into the US Army to serve post-Korea, as he hadn't seen active service in WWII even though he'd been in the RAF. We moved around as my father was posted from base to base, finally spending time outside of Denver, which I loved. Then when he was done with Army service we transplanted to Long Island, the great post-war suburb of New York City. Which I didn't love.
Gavin: What first got you interested in writing. And what were some early comics you read early on?
Chris: I just always wrote. Never thought about it, just always did it. The first comics I read were in Eagle. Eagle was a boy's magazine published in England. My grandmother sent it to me so I would stay connected to home. I guess the thought probably was that when we came back, I'd have something in common with the other boys. Well, we didn't go back to the UK, but Eagle opened the door to a type of story-telling I probably wouldn't have ever seen without my grandmother's subscription. Which led to a career, that in a family were everyone was a doctor or lawyer, not perhaps what Granny C. had in mind. Eagle featured continuing stories like Dan Dare, Heroes The Spartan, and the biographies of famous Brits like Winston Churchill, Field Marshal Montgomery and Jesus Christ. The publisher was an Anglican minister interested in providing England's youth with role models, to combat other, more... tawdry... influences. (Did I mention that my grandmother was the daughter of a vicar, and also a very good graphic artist?)
Chris: The art in Eagle was sometimes prosaic but often brilliant, featuring Frank Hampson doing Dan Dare and Frank Bellamy also on Dan Dare and Heroes The Spartan. Eagle's been reprinted, and in available in hard cover compilations. Well worth the look. I'd read American comics on a casual basis, mostly on regular trips to the barber-shop, while waiting my turn for a haircut, until in 10th grade I discovered Fantastic Four #48, the beginning of the original Galactus trilogy. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, at their peak. I read the issue, I bought the issue, I wanted to see what happened next. When the next issue came out, I bought it, read it, loved it -- and found myself hooked. Next thing I knew, I was eagerly awaiting each of Stan and Jack's issues of FF. That lead me to Thor, and from there to Avengers. And before you know it, I found myself hooked reading classic Marvel comics.
Gavin: What drew you to taking up studies at Bard College?
Chris: Probably because it was the farthest thing from my high school experience. My high school was the typical post-war suburban monolith, over 3,000 students. Ever see the movie “Born On The Fourth of July”? That's where I grew up. Literally. Bard was – and is – very progressive, very small. It had a policy that the professors had to be working in their field, giving the lie to the old adage, Those who don't do, teach. I studied acting with working actors and directors, my writing instructor was a New York Times best-selling author, my political science professor was Hannah Arendt's husband -- and she would come and talk to us, too. It was an incredible environment for me to come of age in, and it's not surprising that Xavier's School For Gifted Youngsters is set in that area of New York State.
(Artist: Philippe Briones - Wanderers: The Sorceress Of The Sacred Isle)
Gavin: How did you eventually get your job at Marvel Comics?
Chris: For the first two years I was at Bard, it had this great program. School would close down from January 1st to March 1st, and we were all expected to go out and get jobs in our field of study. This saved on the heating bill, and got us out of our Ivory Tower. A good friend of my parents was Al Jaffe, the famous cartoonist who worked for Mad Magazine. I wanted to work at Mad. What 18 year-old wouldn't of, back in the day? Al told my parents, no way was he going to be the one who sent their son up to Bill Gaines' apartment, where, shall we say, the staff employed a variety of means to spur on their creativity. Instead, he put me in touch with his friend Stan Lee at Marvel Comics -- a more wholesome environment! I got what we now call an internship, but then I was the Gofer. ...Go For this, Go For that...
Chris: I graduated Bard with a degree in acting. Yes, acting. Went down to New York, did my stints and paid my dues doing bus and truck, soap operas, off-off-off Broadway, the usual. I paid the rent by selling luggage at Saks Fifth Avenue. But I was also always writing. I sold my first piece of fiction while I was in college to The Magazine Of Fantasy & Science Fiction, a short story called “Psymed.” In New York I began doing journalistic pieces for Marvel's black and white magazines, articles on zombies, vampires, Dracula, werewolves -- the “true” histories. I was working for Stan, and when a part-time staff position opened up, I grabbed it. Selling luggage had lost it's charm. In typical Marvel fashion all the work I was hired to do came in the two and a half days I wasn't there, so they had to hire me full time. I figured this was great, I'd work at Marvel for a while, build a nest-egg, and get some steady freelance to support my acting. Then I got the X-Men, and let's just say, I haven't acted since.
Gavin: I know you're pressed for time, what can we expect from you coming up?
Chris: Writing, writing, and more writing. I'm working on a prose novel, Wild Blood, a contemporary urban dark fantasy set in New York City. Descendants of Christopher Marlowe – the playwright who may have written some of Shakespeare's plays, who was a spy for Queen Elizabeth, who was killed by a dagger thrust to the eye in a pub brawl when barely in his 20s, “supposedly” over a bad debt...
Gavin: Real quick, is there anything you'd like to plug or promote?
Chris: Plug is such a... shameless word. But right now I am in the very nice position of writing several projects, all different, all of which I'm very proud of. Going into the Fall, X-Men Forever we'll discover more about the death of Wolverine, and why there are no old mutants. While Charlie works frantically to find a cure, Nick Fury and the X-Men confront a growing number of enemies, old and new, who strike while they are most vulnerable. We'll see the Sentinels reborn, and the lives of Nightcrawler and Rogue turned upside-down. And Sabretooth may prove himself a valuable member of the team – if he doesn't kill them all first! I have the very great privilege of working with the amazing Italian artist, Milo Manara, on a very special X-Men project, featuring Storm, Kitty, Sage, Rogue, Psylocke, Rachel, & Emma Frost. Yes, all women! The title is still being worked out, but the in-house title is X-Babes. For those of you who know Manara's work – and if you're an adult you should check him out – this is everything you would imagine. This is the first time this preeminent European artist has ever done superheroes, and he's having so much fun! First publication is in Italy, in time for Lucca. Look to the publisher's web site: Panini, as well as a cover story in the Italian magazine La Rebulica this September, for a first look. Marvel will publish in the US next year. Last but certainly not least the second volume of my Arthurian historical fantasy/alternate history graphic novel series, Wanderers: The Sorceress Of The Sacred Isle will be coming out shortly from Soleil, the French publisher. The art is by Philippe Briones, and is a strong, muscular take on medieval fantasy. And you never know what's next, as there's talk in the air about another X-project ... Keep an eye on my website for more!