The Camp Genius of Chris Claremont

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By: Peter Cimpoe

The greatest foe a potential X-Men reader will ever face is where to start. I’ve encountered countless fans of the movies, cartoons, and video games who have never read an X-Men comic. They love the X-Men as a superhero team, but they are intimidated by the sheer volume of comics and compendiums available to them. Most guides that I have encountered recommend either Grant Morrison’s run of New X-Men or Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men. Both are excellent, easy to pick up, solid runs. However, neither are responsible for what the X-Men are about in our cultural consciousness. And no, Stan Lee was never the major force behind the X-Men as we know them today and anyone who’s read Stan Lee’s era of the X-Men can attest to that being a good thing! Chris Claremont was the creative spark that shaped the X-Men comics into everything we love about the X-Men. He was the hand that turned a team of teenagers into a powerhouse of compelling and equally complicated characters. And yet, despite all this, his name has never held the same literary prestige as Frank Miller or Alan Moore. While Frank Miller and Alan Moore’s writings are described as gritty, adult and groundbreaking, Claremont’s writing is too often described as “camp.” And I agree! But again, that’s a good thing. Chris Claremont’s heavy hand is exactly the reason why anyone interested in the X-Men should read his run if they want to know what the X-Men are really about. Claremont and camp are what define the X-Men. Dark and serious do not equal better storytelling and I don’t think “campy” is an intrinsically a bad trait. Fans interested in reading Claremont’s X-Men run shouldn’t be advised to look past the campy qualities in order to experience the great stories. They should embrace the camp as a central part of what’s great about the X-Men universe. And no piece of Claremont’s writing better exemplifies this statement than the Dark Phoenix Saga.

The Dark Phoenix Saga is, without a doubt, the most iconic X-Men story. It is a superhero classic. Comic book critics will usually include it on their list of must-read comics of all time. And yet, despite all the accolades that are heaped on the saga, I am often dismayed to read the standard accompanying footnote that follows Claremont’s name: It is dated and it is “of its time.” People knock down the comic book’s style of artwork, which is ridiculous, because Dave Cockrum and John Byrne created a visual narrative that is animated and effective. There is movement to the panels, a sense of urgency and speed. Another common criticism of Claremont’s work is that there is too much dialogue, that it is overly narrated and unnecessarily dramatic. Anyone who doesn’t like wordy narration and over-the-top dramatics should probably steer clear of reading Watchmen or any other works by Alan Moore then. Most often criticized is the tie-in deal Marvel had with Casablanca records to create a disco-themed superheroine, Dazzler, and shoehorn her into the main Dark Phoenix story. Do I wish that this part of the story were omitted from the overall plot? Absolutely not. It’s ridiculous but it’s also memorable and it’s a fun read! Disco doesn’t ruin the Dark Phoenix Saga anymore than the Batmobile ruins Batman. It’s silly but that’s what separates superhero comics apart from other mediums and genres. We enter these spaces for a special kind of pandemonium that only exists in comics and we stay for the titillating story and endearing characters. Claremont’s X-Men innovated the superhero genre and created a new kind of comic book soap opera. Removing the camp element would be to take out what is most integral to X-Men comics. When you make the X-Men dark and serious and take out the improbable, you don’t invariably end up with War And Peace.

Perhaps my greatest issue with the whole “Chris Claremont is dated” statement is the word “dated” itself. Claremont, beyond anything else, was incredibly ahead of his time. His work heavily featured powerful women (he transformed the unimpressive Marvel Girl into the powerful Phoenix) and he had a black woman, Storm, lead the X-Men team in an era when neither women nor black characters led major superhero teams. Claremont subtly hinted at LGBTQ characters existing in this universe. He did this at a time when Marvel editor-in-chief, Jim Shooter, explicitly forbade homosexual characters from appearing in Marvel comics. Claremont was behind the first openly LGBTQ character at Marvel – Northstar – and he had originally intended for Mystique and Destiny to conceive of Nightcrawler together naturally. This idea was quickly shot down by the Marvel execs but Claremont did not quite back down either. He made it so that Mystique and Destiny’s partnership could be interpreted as one that was romantic in nature, albeit between the panels. Years later, Mystique and Destiny’s romance would become officially canon as the times caught up with Claremont. On the flip side, modern adaptations of classic Claremont X-Men stories have taken a non-progressive step backwards. Bryan Singer’s film adaptation of Days of Future Past is a prime example. Most major key players in the original comic were women. They propelled the plot forward and remained integral to the story, while the film replaces almost all major female characters with male leads. Mystique remains central to the movie’s plot; however, her motives and relationships are warped to the point where she seems to function as an extension to the men that surround her. Claremont’s Days of Future Past, on the other hand, was far more progressive in comic book form than it ever was on screen some decades later. Perhaps this is all to say that Claremont dared to take chances during a time in history where it was considerably more difficult, inflammatory, and dangerous to do so and he did because he knew that these were the stories that he needed to tell. And they were important stories told in the only way that he knew how to tell them: the Chris Claremont way.

If you don’t know where to start with X-Men comics but want the pure, essential X-Men experience, read Chris Claremont’s run. If you want a more conventionally palatable comic book featuring X-Men characters, pick up Joss Whedon’s or Grant Morrison’s books. Both are excellent, but Claremont’s run will always be at the core of what defines X-Men comics. After overcoming the decision of where to start, the second greatest enemy the X-Men reader will ever face is the enduring concept that X-Men comics are a chronological story with the faintest idea of continuity. Don’t expect one answer for why Professor X is in a wheelchair or what Cyclops’ eye beams are able to do. That’s also part of the package. It’s part of the overreaching, space opera dynamics that make the X-Men so great.


    One Comment

  1. Sophia QuevedoJune 23rd, 2017 at 7:56 pm

    I love this article! I must admit that I am one of the people mentioned in the article; I am a big X men fan, growing up I used to watch the cartoon series religiously but I am definitely intimidated by the overwhelming choice in comic series available. I will 100% take this advice and start with Claremont’s compendiums!!

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