Geeks OUT’s second annual LGBTQ pop culture event Flame Con boasted an expansive line-up of guests this year, but perhaps none with as storied a career and comics legacy as Chris Claremont. Claremont joined Superwoman's Phil Jimenez, Silk’s Tana Ford, and Flame Con director Josh Siegel for an hour-long discussion of his life, influences, and his iconic X-Men runs, particularly on New Mutants - a series that has resonated deeply with LGBTQ fans throughout the years.
Jimenez opened the panel with kind words for Claremont, noting he had “often said George Perez had the greatest impact on me as an artist,” but no writer had more of an impact on his work than Claremont. Jimenez then prompted the British-born writer to share his “secret origin story,” the tale of what defined him growing up. Claremont recounted his mother’s experiences in the Royal Air Force and London School of Economics to his family’s move to New York in his youth. The writer’s light and conversational tone belied his extraordinary childhood as the grandson of a Jewish mother who escaped Russia and the child of a three-time RAF Sergeant who in his own words was stationed at a radar station tht served as a “welcome wagon for visitors from across the channel.”
Even as Tana Ford commented on his “extraordinary origin story” Claremont joked he was “paid by the word” and only giving Phil Jimenez something to draw.
Claremont described his move to New York City's 81st and Broadway when he started college (and turned the room green with envy when he revealed his rent at the time was $120), prompting Siegel to reflect that the writer seemed to have moved directly into the sort of counterculture Siegel appreciated in Claremont’s X-Men work
The conversation then shifted towards the way Claremont's experiences as a political theory student at a left-leaning school in New York impacted the directions he took with the X-Men. Phil Jimenez explicitly asked if the politics he was exposed to as as a young man shaped his choices, and Claremont explained that he weaved his experiences at Bard College, his eye-opening and “humbling” experiences in an Israeli kibbutz fleeing a potential attack near the Jordanian border, and the harsh realities of deadly conflicts that he described as “a level of reality outside of Ferguson (Missouri) two years ago you didn’t know existed.”
“Do you think that some part of that informs how you shaped the X-Men?” Tana Ford asked.
“Absolutely,” Claremont responded. “If you go back to spring of ‘68, look at people who would go to Robert F. Kennedy’s rallies, white bikers and black power saying this guy is standing next to me. If you listen to the radio the night Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated ... when Kennedy comes out to speak and they gasp and he keeps talking, quoting the Bible and poetry, speaking passion from his heart and they all listened.”
“To come through that with hope and crash into Los Angeles and Chicago and that turn into the election and find yourself with Richard Nixon, a time when you could legitimately wonder if the world was coming to an end. The hopeful side of the equation was consumed.”
Claremont said that he “looked at the X-men and said 'Screw it, these kids just want a normal life and all anyone sees is their powers,'” and that their powers only made people feel scared, “and that is wrong. It comes down to the point [in X-Men #99] where Jean and Logan and Banshee are trapped,” when Jean Gray first realizes that Logan’s adamantium claws are part of him and that she never told him -- to which Logan responds that no one ever asked. “She’s horrified because it's part of him,” Claremont said. “How could you let someone do this to you?”
Jimenez noted that those stories were often read as a metaphor by LGBTQ readers, asking what LGBTQ politics were like for Claremont in the ‘70s, to which Claremont jokingly retorted, “I was an actor in New York, dude.” He added that, “admittedly the fashion sense [among the LGBTQ community] was really cool, didn't have the guts to go near it but it was cool, in the 70s. Stupid as it sounds it never really made it, was never there in my head so it was weird to see other people react that way.”
But when asked by Siegel about that subtext and how fans bring those elements to life in fanwork, Claremont acknowledged that subtextual interpretation of some iconic characters, joking “characters have a canon life that publishing companies ignore completely,” and when asked about some iconic scenes between characters like Charles Xavier and Magneto, he noted, “My thinking was god bless ambiguity. Sexual orientation in that instance is irrelevant, they are best friends…” and that the intimacy and emotional bond was often the work of the artists he was partnered with, including Dave Cockrum, John Bryne, and John Bolton. He noted that he never gave firm commands for panels, saying “one of the advantages to being one of the last writers taught by Stan is when you’re working with Jack Kirby, why tell him what to do? His ability is far and away beyond yours as a writer -- don’t be a dumbass.”
With Cockrum, he said, “Dave and I thought in 70mm widescreen. One page, four panels wide, and make it crowded. Byrne is widescreen high definition TV, the focus is bringing you into the characters right in front of you, a different level of intimacy. Paul Smith was a cleaner version of both of them but with that kind of power or visual panache.”
Panelist Tana Ford noted that the visual panache, the “outfits and flamboyance was one of the things” readers loved about Claremont’s X-Men runs. “They were different and counterculture,” but wondered how much of that was intentional, to which Claremont noted that if you were “going to put these kids on camera, do it in a way that’s instantly recognizable.”
He added that artists sometimes find it easier to draw “nude figures with lines and they’re visually perfect,” and when that’s the case, “all you have to screw around with is their emotions and that’s the meat... The important stuff is what happens when you’re on the steps and Logan hands you a cigar, it’s what happens when Logan and Beast bring Colossus to a bar,” because he just broke someone’s heart. “I’ve been dumped and yelled at. Those are the money shots, those are the moments you came about.” He added, “I’d rather have Ben Affleck feeling something than twenty minutes of punching CGI Zod. You want moments that resonate with your audience.”
Phil Jimenez brought the panel to a close with a frank question for Claremont: “Are you aware of the impact you’ve had on multiple generations of creators? You’ve changed the world. Do you think about that?”
Claremont’s response was quick and to the point: “No! If I could look back twenty years after moving onto a higher plane I’d say wow, but I’m in the thickets, still doing stuff. I want to talk about what I’m doing now… I’m not interested in what I’ve done, I’m interested in what I’m about to do.”
“You shaped this found family that shaped my childhood that we’re in love with,” Tana Ford added before opening the floor for questions. “You created it, and it’s spawned and grown.”
Audience Q & A:
Q: “A friend was bullied and it was New Mutants that got her through. You saved her, and she'd like to know how you came up with them.”
A: “Which country haven't we exploited, which ethnic group haven't we slandered. Since we killed Thunderbird I wanted an American Indian, Sam we had to have a token white guy… Bobby we wanted a South American hero, as Brazilian but mixed race Brazilian and his father is dark skinned money which is unusual there, Rahne [Wolfsbane] ... young werewolf hopefully soon to be played by Arya Stark.”
Q from Tana Ford: Did it come to you or were there stories you wanted to tell?
A: “Come up with interesting characters and turn them loose. What absurd 19th century trope can we use to make a group of characters and cut it loose from there. Trick with the mutants was kids in a boarding school in a strange town getting to know each other and no matter what they do, everything gets worse.”
Q: As a writer your job is putting characters through the ringer, so what is the best one?
A: “The one I haven't thought of yet. What's the best one you thought?” (The questioner’s answer: when Storm lost her powers.) “Barry Smith did the story which immediately gives it a heads up on everything… the first two pages are just Storm lying in bed. I'm sitting there thinking how do we stage this and I said ok just let the camera speak and with Barry you had the best camera imaginable. The key thing if you're a writer is to visualize the scene and convey it to the penciller and turn the penciller loose. Plotting with the right penciller is superior to me to scripting... scripting includes the visual structure and to me if I'm working with Barry it's like what am I doing, this guy is world class, you don't have to [mess] around. Trust their judgement, it is a synergy.”
“Contrary to what you're experiencing now the key to writing comics is knowing when to shut up. The penciller has the gift, the talent, the skill.” As a writer, Claremont said, “your job is to fill in the grace notes and fill in emotions not easily manifested in pencils.”
Q: What should we be looking for?
A: Chris noted that he’s writing a book, and “the problem is books take time, and you have to find a publisher,” but “as soon as this gets into gear I’ll send out flares like you wouldn’t believe.”
Though Tana Ford pressed Claremont on his favorite characters, he noted that there were hundreds he’d had a hand in. Josh Siegel asked more specifically if there was a forgotten character he wished had gotten more screen time. Claremont said there probably was, but specifically, “It’d be nice if the Gambit movie gets made before Channing Tatum ages out, especially since I wrote the screen treatment.”
Phil Jimenez closed the panel with a direct question: “Who’s the queerest character you’ve ever written?”
Claremont demurely replied, “The strangest?”
When Jimenez clarified that it was however Claremont defined it, he offered up a somewhat roundabout response that delighted the crowd. “In X-men: The End volumes one through three, a certain character is notable for being the 50th President,” referring to Kitty Pryde’s time as President of the United States. “And for being a historic first,” he added, “not because she’s a mutant.”