Tai Freligh chats with Patrick Meaney about Chris Claremont’s X-Men…
Chris Claremont came to Marvel as a young man, and was assigned a book that no one else wanted, a book on the brink of cancellation: X-Men. Over the next 17 years, his work on the title turned it into the biggest franchise in comic book history. Forty years later, his work has been adapted into ten films, three TV series, countless video games and has become a part of our cultural mythology. Now a documentary has been made which takes a look at Claremont and his influence on the X-Men. An extended version of the documentary also provides an expanded story with more background on Claremont and his two original collaborators, Ann Nocenti and Louise Simonson, revealing secrets into what made them a great team. We talked to filmmaker Patrick Meaney about his film, Claremont’s influence on the X-Men franchise and about the lasting legacy of the X-Men.
How did you come by this story for a film?
I first got into comics from reading Claremont’s stories. I picked up Essential X-Men Volume 1, which was a cheap black and white collection of Claremont’s first issues on the book and was instantly hooked. A few years later, I read his entire run on the title from back to front and was blown away by the subtle evolution of the characters, and how he was able to turn seventeen years of periodical comics into a single, ever changing narrative. It’s a wild achievement, and one that is vastly underappreciated.
I think Claremont should stand with Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in terms of influence on modern comics, but he’s not thought of that way. I think people don’t grasp how important his writing was in creating a generation of creators who told very extended serial narratives. Certainly some writers rebelled against his influence, but he’s a precursor to Alan Moore, and was a favorite writer of Neil Gaiman. His run on X-Men goes from the Stan Lee/Kirby era of Marvel straight through the auteur era of the 80s and into the 90s. It’s the bridge from comics past to comics present, and I think deserves more credit.
And I was just intrigued to hear the story behind the stories of all these awesome stories and characters that I loved. In one hundred years, people will still be rebooting X-Men on screen, so we might as well hear from the people who made it happen in the first place.
What is the most important takeaway from the movie?
For me, it’s that X-Men, unlike almost all other superhero properties, is really an auteurist creation. It’s Chris, along with Louise Simonson, Ann Nocenti and the artists who built this empire. It was a very small team, and they were able to create characters with incredible nuance who were relatable and changed.
The Wolverine or Storm we know today are derived from Claremont’s work, but they’ve become archetypes. His characters and stories were all about change, and that’s very unique in superhero comics. And I think people should realize how unique X-Men was and then see why it couldn’t last. That’s the core of the film.
Did you have any preconceptions about Chris before you met him and talked to him?
I actually didn’t know too much about Chris going in. I had spent so many hours reading his work, but he doesn’t have the same kind of public persona of a Neil Gaiman or Grant Morrison. So I was just excited to talk to the person who made all these amazing stories.
Did they change afterwards?
I was very impressed by how much of himself Chris put into the stories. Knowing his family emigrated from England makes Excalibur make a lot more sense, and hearing about his own childhood experiences put a lot of the X-Men’s theme in context. Like any auteur, Chris’s stories were derived from his imagination and his experience. But I don’t think most people imagine that would be the case for something like X-Men.
He’s also a lot of fun to talk to, it feels like talking to a philosopher or master storyteller.
What was the secret sauce that helped Chris turn around the X-Men?
I think it’s his commitment to change. Superhero comics are all about the status quo, Batman will always fight the Joker, etc. So, it’s shocking to read his stories and watch Magneto change from villain to hero, or see Wolverine mellow out and grow into a leadership role. Companies often seem scared of change and think that readers can’t handle it, but Chris’s stories got more and more successful even as he rotated the cast and changed circumstances all the time.
For me personally, I think Ann Nocenti was a prime influence on Chris’s best stories. She edited the most dynamic and experimental issues of X-Men and helped bring Bill Sienkiewicz to New Mutants for a wild run on that title. You can see a major change when she did move off editing the book to write her own titles. Her collaborations with Chris are the high point of his run, and you’ll learn a lot about that in the film.
Why do you think the X-Men franchise has been so successful after all these years?
I think it’s largely due to the foundation that Chris laid. Comics thrive on character, and he created a cast of incredible characters who could sustain stories for forty years and counting.
And I think the central metaphor of an oppressed minority fighting for their right to exist is something that will always resonate. In the film, we hear from Chris about the personal experiences that made him relate to this. The sort of religious zealots in God Loves, Man Kills are as relevant now as they were 35 years ago, sadly.
What was the most interesting thing you learned from talking to Rob Liefield?
I interviewed Rob for my doc on Image Comics, The Image Revolution and the most interesting thing was how funny he is. He’s a totally honest, hilarious storyteller. You might not agree with everything he says, but you’ll enjoy hearing him say it.
In my opinion, Wolverine IS the X-Men. Do you think the movies would have been as successful if they hadn’t nailed the casting with Hugh Jackman?
No way. At the time, I remember people complaining Wolverine was too tall or too handsome, but his performance defined the character on screen. It’s going to be a real uphill battle for anyone playing the character in the future.
And I think he’s the heart of the X-Men on screen, so I doubt the franchise would have taken off without him. It’s similar to Gal Gadot in Wonder Woman, a perfect casting and star making performance.
Why tell this story now, 17 years later?
It’s been twenty-seven years since Chris left the main X-Men title and Jim Lee took over. And I think we’re still only starting to grasp Chris’s influence. Shows like Legion are showing the diversity of ideas he had, his stories can be the most avant garde show on TV or straight ahead blockbuster films, and he brought them all to this one title.
With The New Mutants and Dark Phoenix films coming out soon, Chris’s work is as prominent as ever, and I think it’s time for people to learn about the man behind the mutants.
How do you survive the zombie apocalpyse?
I’d stockpile a lot of food, stay in my house and hope for the best.
Last comic book you read?
I reread Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Strikes Again, which I love. And I’m currently rereading Grant Morrison’s Animal Man, which I haven’t read in over ten years, so it’s kind of new to me.
Who wins in a cage match – Wolverine or Deadpool?
I’d say Wolverine, especially if Deadpool can’t go in with guns.
Is Wolverine’s story done after Logan or do you recast?
I think we should let the character rest for a while, and maybe have Laura take over for a film. It was such a perfect ending, let’s give it a few years before rebooting.
One question you wish people would ask you about the documentary?
Why did you choose to film the comic books rather than scan the images ?
I wanted to get that real analog 70s feel for the film, so I found a guy who had every issue of X-Men from #1 to #300, and filmed all the panels in the film off the comics themselves. I think it reminds you that even though Chris was making great art, it was published next to ads for gum and cereal. So, who knows where the iconic stories of the future will come from?
We thank Patrick for taking the time to chat with us and hope you check out the documentary now available on VOD.
Tai Freligh is a writer based in Los Angeles and can be found on Twitter.
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