"Sometimes people cry at me," says Chris Claremont when asked how he handles his status as a comic book legend. He has passed me in Moscow, in Paris, in Madrid, all over the world. I'm signing and someone is in tears and tells me that he loves my work, that he adores this or that character. And a part of me pumps my fists and cheers, “Yes!” But another freaks out: "Oh my God, then my next script has to be even better."
We talked in the garden of a hotel in Avilés. Claremont -historical screenwriter of the Marvel house, father of the X-Men (The X Patrol, in Spain), author of the best-selling comic in history (almost 8.2 million copies, in 1992), and the writer who time he has been at the forefront of a collection (17 years)– he is one of the stars of the Celsius festival, dedicated to fantasy, horror and science fiction, and an environment, therefore, with a high probability of fan tears.
At 71, he walks leaning on a cane. He gets a little short of breath in long paragraphs (and he always speaks in long paragraphs), he asks for his glasses to sign a comic; his wife, Beth, reminds him to take his vitamins. It seems that age has taken its toll... until he talks about comics. He then raises his voice, gesticulates, snaps his fingers to mark the rhythm that a good story should have. And he seems just as energized as he was in 1975, when he became a writer on the moribund X-Men comic book series and turned it into a best-seller whose repercussions are still huge. “Now I work for my third generation of readers, and I'm heading into my fourth,” he says, and he himself seems impressed. To me, that speaks volumes about the impact he has had.”
Where is the key to that impact? What is essential in writing comics? “Find a good story and tell it, better if it is with a great cartoonist –he laughs–. It all boils down to that: creating characters and telling a story, conflict and resolution. The same rule goes for novelists or filmmakers. The difference is that each comic is a chapter in a larger story, so you resolve the conflict and, on the last page, you include something that keeps the reader coming back for the next issue. And the next. And the next. It is an endless adventure. When it's done right, that's where the fun lies."
With X-Men, obviously, he did well. And in the success of the series, diversity played an important role. A study by the academic project The Claremont Run concluded that, in the 1970s and 1980s, The X-Men comics passed the Bechdel test 50% more often than all other Marvel titles combined. "Women are 51% of the human race," says the writer. It's a very large audience, and I wanted them to read my comics, so I tried to give them characters that they could empathize with, that they could make their own; Plus, they were based on women I know, just as brave and brilliant.” The female characters, which Claremont included and endowed with complexity, were, in effect, a pending issue in the comics sector. “Look, for example, at the Fantastic Four. The three male characters have spectacular powers. And the only woman? His power is… to disappear. It's a disturbing but realistic metaphor for relationships in the '60s. With the X-Men, my goal, in a way, was to break the rules. To get a comic that could speak to more people.” Even the title of the comic (X-Men, X-Men) deserves revision, in his eyes. “It's not just men. There has to be a better title, although, of course, it is a registered trademark. It is not a subtle reference to the title that he himself wanted to give the series, The Mutants, which Marvel rejected... and which, it is rumored, could now be adopted for some of the house's products.
But the X-Men didn't just give space to women; also characters of other races and nationalities. “Why not give everyone a voice? When you explore their individuality, their self-perception and their view of reality, you make those characters interesting. The more diversity, the more fun, and the more fun, the more excited readers will be. And they will learn something, hopefully.” The subtext, in those years, was fundamental. Claremont turned the superhero trope on its head: mutants were not giants of mythological solemnity, but strange and persecuted beings. And that message caught on among minorities. “Mutants are born with superpowers, they don't get them in a lab or on star travel. They can say: I was born different. Why do you hate me for that? And that metaphor was understood by black people, and also by Latinos, LGBTI people, and Arabs. What breaks my heart is that in the last 45 years that has not improved.
In no sense? Until 1989, explicit mentions of homosexuality were prohibited by the Comics Code Authority. Destiny and Mystique, perhaps the most iconic lesbian couple created by Claremont, had to play cluelessness (are they friends? are they girlfriends?) for decades. They are now officially a couple in the comics. But the writer shakes his head. “Nothing has really changed. Yes, now it's easier to present those relationships explicitly. But for me that was not the core of the story; the center was the world in which they lived, and the world, especially in the United States, is not now more tolerant towards the LGBTI community. Nor towards people born in other countries. Sometimes I reread 'God loves, man kills' and I wonder: in today's society, would Reverend Stryker still be the villain of the story… or would he be the hero? (In God Loves, Man Kills, a 1983 graphic novel, the fanatic Stryker led a crusade to wipe out mutants, whom he considered to be creatures of Satan.)
So, nothing has changed in all these years? "In the '80s we had a lot more creative freedom," says Claremont. Stan Lee [el histórico editor de Marvel] I had three rules: deliver on time, tell a good story and don't be a pain in the ass, I already have a lot of work to carry out this company. We had a responsibility to make the comics and not screw it up. But, little by little, elements of control began to appear. Editors, assistants... who over time became more and more involved in the plots and the characters. It made sense. The writers changed every few years, so the editors maintained continuity. Except in my series, where I had been for many years. From my perspective, I knew best what I was doing. And I got away with it for a long time."
The end of that golden age is the great scar in the joint history of Marvel and Claremont: cartoonist Jim Lee, the rising star of the house, began to draw X-Men and wanted to have a say in the arguments. Bob Harras, the publisher, supported him. Claremont mentions the episode diplomatically. “Marvel had to find a balance between what the writer wanted to do and what the publisher wanted to do. And that's why I left that first time; or rather they asked me to leave. But hey, that's how this business works. Like Stan said, you can play with the toys, but when you're done you have to put them back in the box, because the toys are from Marvel."
This system can lead to paradoxical situations. Claremont is about to release his new collection for Marvel, 'Gambit', based on a character that he created and that other writers transformed into someone totally different. “It's been a lot of fun, but also ironic: the Gambit that everyone knows, and that I've worked with for this series, is not the one that I consider real in my heart. That's the reality. Some things work, others don't, and others are run over by a bus before they can bear fruit."
Which leads us to talk about copyright. The characters that Claremont "played" with until 1991 (including some 150 created by him), and again from 1998, when he returned to the company, belong to Marvel. But the footprint of this screenwriter is long. “Think of 'Ms. Marvel', a series starring a Pakistani teenager; the story is not mine, the character is not mine… But it derives from my creations”. Is it hard to lose control of characters and plots? "It's reality," says the pragmatist. I would like, above all, that in the series and movies, instead of a “thanks to…” at the end of the credits, in tiny letters, there would be greater recognition for all of us. When the series 'Legión' was released, my name and that of [el dibujante] Bill Sienkiewicz were at the beginning, very big, along with the writer, the director and the producer. For me, this was the perfect solution. Why couldn't they do the same in 'Dark Phoenix', 'Days of Future Past' or 'The New Mutants'? Well, there are a lot of legal reasons. But those films would not have existed without the work of the original creators and I think there should be a way to express that publicly. I understand that it is not like that, but it is frustrating.”
It's impossible to talk about Marvel without mentioning its cinematic universe, a mega-business that has frequently changed the canon of the original comics, but has also attracted new readers. What do you think about that? "Well, that's way beyond my remit," he says. I really like some of the movies.” Which? He hesitates a moment. "Hmm, no, that's my business." What do you think of Captain Marvel, a film that, 50 years after Claremont decided to give a relevant role to superheroines, is still branded by some as "forced inclusion"? The screenwriter laughs. “My personal controversy with 'Captain Marvel' is that they took away all of Phoenix's powers [personaje creado por Claremont] to give them to her, which in turn ended up ruining the 'Dark Phoenix' movie. But that would give us another interview.”
Claremont's mutants, in fact, have had mixed fortunes on screen (fun fact: in early negotiations for the X-Men adaptation, James Cameron was going to be the producer, and he suggested Kathryn Bigelow direct). Claremont has speculated that perhaps a series would better capture the spirit of the Patrol. “Something like 'Game of Thrones', a story-river; that would be perhaps a good way to start from scratch –he points out–. But it's just my opinion. It is not for me to decide, I only speculate from the outside, like anyone else. I would love for my work to be an active part of the cinematic universe. I would love to be an active part of that universe. Those days, I suspect, are past. However, I would very much like a series or a movie to have as big and lasting an impact as the comics. And if someone at Marvel can do it, I'd love to see it."