I love the X-Men. More than any other group of comics, X-titles make up the largest percentage of my personal collection and my weekly pull. Thanks to the 90’s cartoon, they were some of the first superheroes I ever encountered. I have read a lot of classic Uncanny X-Men issues over the years, and have been forced to make one, inescapable conclusion. Chris Claremont must be a horrible human being.
Okay, so Chris Claremont isn’t actually a horrible person. I’ve had the good fortune of meeting him on several occasions, and every time he has been courteous and pleasant, in fact, more than willing to engage his fans in respectful conversation. How then could I conclude that he is in fact a horrible person? Well, Chris Claremont is responsible for making the X-Men the superhero soap opera that it is well known to be. As anyone who has ever seen five minutes of a soap knows, what really drives a soap opera and makes it so addictive to watch is the drama. The audience never knows who is going to find out about their favorite character’s deep, dark secret or when the villain pulling a character’s strings will turn out to be their evil twin, who is also sleeping with his wife, which is really his sister, who was switched at birth. That might be a little farfetched, but I think I’ve made my point.
Though not quite to the same extent, this is exactly the same kind of drama that Claremont inserted into the comics he was writing. Claremont wrote most of the X-titles for seventeen years, which is an insanely long time, especially for a comics writer. It also means that for seventeen years, Claremont killed, resurrected, overpowered, depowered, retconned, and generally abused the crap out of a whole host of characters. While each character became his target at one time or another, the two that Claremont seemed to take the most pleasure in tormenting were Jean Grey (Marvel Girl) and Scott Summers (Cyclops). Of all the various story arcs and single issues that Claremont wrote, the one for which he is probably best known is the “Dark Phoenix Saga.” Prior to this, Jean was nearly killed and was then possessed by the Phoenix Force. Slowly over the next thirty issues, Jean was driven crazy by the Phoenix and the manipulations of another mutant, eventually becoming Dark Phoenix, wiping out an entire planet of sentient life, and then dying. In case you missed that, Jean Grey committed genocide!
Scott, on the other hand, made two separate attempts to leave the X-Men, only to get pulled back into the team, had several relationships go disastrously badly, finally got married to a woman who turned out to be the clone of Jean, and had a son with her named Nathan, who was infected with a techno-organic virus that required him to be sent into the future in order to live. Soon after, the real Jean shows back up, so he leaves his wife and son, causing his now ex-wife(?) to become a supervillain.
All of this happened to just TWO members of the X-Men, at a time when there were a couple of dozen regular and reoccurring characters among all the X-titles. Even on those books he wasn’t writing himself, Claremont had creative input.
As if the actual events the characters have to live (and sometimes die) through aren’t horrific enough, they also have to put up with Claremont’s narrations. These text boxes are often filled with terrifying messages to start off each issue. One of the worst comes from the X-Men #101, in which the Phoenix first appears. Though aptly setting the scene, the issue starts with “Welcome to the last moments of a young woman’s life. Her name is Jean Grey.” Every time I see that introduction, I get super depressed, even though I know exactly what happens and that, at least in the context of the story at the time, she’s going to be perfectly fine. When Claremont isn’t making the audience feel as though they’re getting ready to see an execution, he instead uses the narration to berate and belittle the characters. It’s almost to the point of being funny, considering that he is both the person who put the character in the situation and the one who will have to get them out of it. It doesn’t seem to matter what is going on, the omnipotent writer never lets them catch a break.
Of course, as I’ve said before, Chris Claremont is, in reality, far from the horrible person that I have just made him out to be. In fact, Claremont did great things for Marvel and especially the X-Men. Only in recent years has The Avengers and its associated books become the big thing at Marvel. For many years, thanks in large part to the writing of Claremont, Uncanny X-Men and other X-titles were king. And yes, horrible things happened to characters, but that is also the same thing that kept us fans coming back month after month. People couldn’t wait to see what would happen next and how their favorite mutant would fare. In addition, Claremont gave many characters, such as Jean Grey, added depth that was really lacking in the Lee/Kirby days. Instead of being the helpless woman with powers that were criminally underused, she was the most powerful of the X-Men, capable of destroying entire solar systems. While she may not be the ideally empowered female character of modern Captain Marvel, it was at least a step in the right direction. Even today, after a few missteps like X-Men Forever, Claremont is providing us with great stories full of pain and heartache that we just can’t stop reading.