One Sunday morning in October 1980, Marvel Comics writer Chris Claremont woke up and decided to kill Jean Grey. It was the only fitting conclusion to his Dark Phoenix Saga, in which the telepath comes into the full extent of her powers after being exposed to a solar flare. She becomes the ‘Phoenix’, drives a supervillain insane by flooding his brain with all the contradictory truths of the universe and flies to a distant galaxy, devouring a star and killing the inhabitants of the planet orbiting it. It’s a slow-burn saga that spans the cosmos, but is also grounded in the struggle within Jean and her desire to do right by the X-Men.
In the 39 years since its publication, we’ve seen it play out in two feature-length films and even an animated series, but none have captured the heart of the source material, says Claremont.
The Phoenix is just one of 500-odd characters he estimates that he created over his 17-year-long stint at Marvel. He initially got the job through a friend of his parents, who requested the publication to let him intern there at 18. “Next thing I knew, the phone rings at home, I pick it up and hear, ‘Hey there, true believer! This is Stan Lee!’,” he says.
Being able to allay Lee’s fears regarding payment helped – as a student seeking a university credit, Claremont technically wasn’t allowed to ask for wages. He was hired on the spot. “It’s a philosophy that Marvel has held strongly to do this day. They’ll happily get anybody inhouse who will work for free.”
Over an hour-and-a-half long conversation from New York, for which he installed WhatsApp on his phone for the first time, he spoke about his early days at Marvel Comics, why he doesn’t think the adaptations have done his saga justice and the challenges that superhero movies face today:
You joined Marvel Comics as an intern in 1969 –
In those days, we were called ‘gophers’. Not that we lived underground, but it was like ‘go for’ – ‘Go for coffee, go for supplies, go for paper’. Now they’re more formally known as interns. Marvel at that time was a very, very small operation. No comparison to what it is today. You walked in and there was this small reception area with this sad couch and a cubicle with an opening which was a “reception”. The only office with a door was Stan Lee’s. He had three basic requirements – do good work, turn it in on schedule, don’t be a pain in his ass. We lived and died by the deadline. You had to create an issue every 30 days, the publication didn’t care if you were sick, if you didn’t have a great idea.
That was what Marvel was like back then – if you found a problem, you cleared it up the chain of command but dealt with it yourself. And that established your reputation within the company
What are the memories that have stayed with you after all these years?
I showed up in a blazer and tie on the first day because it was an office job and I wanted to look respectable. Within half an hour, I realised no one else was wearing a tie. So I ditched that.
We once got the latest issue of Sergeant Fury in to be proofread. It was all about Fury going home to his mom and younger brother for Christmas. Except that I’d just read an issue from when Stan Lee was doing the series – Fury is getting court martialed and when he gets up to testify, they say that he’s an orphan. So I went in and said we had a problem – we’d established that he’s an orphan but now we’re saying he’s got a family. And they told me to call Stan. So I called him and explained the situation. He says, ‘Okay, fix it.’ and hangs up. After five minutes, the answer kicked into my head; Fury goes home to meet his adopted family. That was what Marvel was like back then – if you found a problem, you cleared it up the chain of command but dealt with it yourself. And that established your reputation within the company.
When I had to go back to university, they told me to take all the unread fan mail and answer it on my own time. I got a submission from a young man in Cleveland, Tony Isabella. I sent him a very nice but regrettable rejection letter – nice story but not quite Marvel etc etc. It was very arrogant for a 19-year-old. Six years later, when I came back to work for Marvel as an employee, my boss turned out to be that same Tony Isabella, who was now an editor. He had a little plaque made out for my desk saying: Claremont, who rejected my submission six years ago. Now he works for me.
You’ve spoken about how you’re telling the adventures of people and not costumes – how hard is it to keep examining internal motivations over 17 years?
Costumes are boring. It’s the people who make a difference. What I loved about Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019) was that there’s lots of exciting superhero action but it’s about Peter Parker and his high school friends. It’s about people, how they feel, how they react to situations. It’s about how Happy Hogan reacts to the death of Tony Stark, how Peter feels about the death of his mentor. The core of Dark Phoenix (2019) is how Jean Grey and Scott Summers feel about each other, how Hank McCoy feels about Charles Xavier, especially in light of the first-act tragedy.
Marvel has always embraced the people. Look at Spider-Man. He’s a 16-year-old who puts on a suit and goes to protect the neighbourhood, not the world. He falls in love with MJ or Gwen Stacy, who are also high school students. It’s not like Superman, where you’re a bestselling reporter for the greatest newspaper in the world, who’s in love with an even better reporter who’s also drop-dead gorgeous. Oh, and you can bend steel with your hand and fly across galaxies with the snap of the wrist. It’s not about being a mysterious billionaire from Gotham City. It’s about a kid who’s trying to figure out the rules of engagement in high school. This is something every reader can relate to. It’s much more fun, both for the reader and the writer, to create people and not icons. Comics are about exploring these brave new worlds, not necessarily Vulcan or Pandora from Avatar (2009) but even those right around the corner.
Let’s talk about the Dark Phoenix saga – was killing Jean at the end always the plan?
It was a natural progression of the story. The irony was that we were so ‘conditioned’ by how comics were supposed to be done, that it never occurred to us that we could get away with the solution that saw print, which is that if Jean was going to commit genocide, there had to be an equivalent price. In comics, there is always a ‘get out of a jail free’ card. Superman can never be punished to that extent. Nor can Batman or Iron Man. They can sacrifice themselves, but if they commit a tragic wrong, there’s always that magical card that gets employed. In this instance, editor-in-chief Jim Shooter reviewed the story before sending it out to the printer and felt that those rules could not apply. The crime was too huge. As a creator, I was really upset because we wrote the ending with the presumption that we had editorial approval every step of the way. It’s like a bomb was dropped on us last minute.
I went home for the weekend with a bottle of bourbon and thought about it. The alternative was Jean goes to prison for the rest of her life. This means the future of the X-Men becomes, ‘We’ve got to bust her out of jail.’ So they succeed or there’s a chase and they’re captured again and then they try again. We’d be going around and around in circles. That was unacceptable. I wanted the story to have a dramatic, fulfilling conclusion. So I woke up on Sunday and thought, ‘She’s gotta die.’ But because it was so late in the production schedule and because there was no social media, thank God, people assumed we would play by the traditional rules, and we didn’t. Jean saw what she did and took responsibility for it. And suddenly, instead of a traditional comic book story, we had a Greek tragedy.
I can’t imagine that the fans took it lightly
The fans were so upset, but most of them figured we’d pull a rabbit out of a hat. I said, ‘No, not in my X-Men.’ I had no idea X-Factor would resurrect Jean. It became obvious over the following 30-odd years that her character has never been the same since. My goal was to give Scott a happy ending. But the minute his ex-girlfriend showed up, he walked out on his wife and newborn child. From that moment on, as a creator and as a fan, he was dead to me. Superheroes are supposed to embody the best of us. The best of us don’t walk out on their families. Too many readers have to deal with that in reality. Comics are supposed to be a safe space where we embrace the ideal. These are people, who on that level, shouldn’t make those kinds of mistakes. And here was the most noble of them doing something that was obscene.
How did you reconcile this idea of characters having to be ideal with Jean Grey committing genocide?
Jean never considered it genocide. For her, it was like stepping on an anthill. As Phoenix, she was as far above the planet she destroyed and above humanity as we are above amoeba. She was hungry, she saw the star, she ate the star. When the human part of her caught up five minutes later, she would’ve looked at the collateral damage and gone, ‘What have I done?’ But at that moment, she was a newborn celestial power. She went with her gut and it unfortunately, pushed her in the wrong direction. The following issue-and-a-half dealt with the consequences.
Almost 40 years on, there have been two movies, an animated series –
There have been all these adaptations, and as good as they are – Dark Phoenix was very good – they still haven’t got the totality of the story. Simon Kinberg’s original concept for the story as a two-part movie like The Avengers (2012) was the right way to go. It’s what I wanted to do, what I pitched to (director) Bryan Singer back in 2004 when he started working on X-Men: The Last Stand (2006). The idea of a nearly three-hour-long movie like Avengers: Endgame (2019) was unthinkable back then.
The first film would be Phoenix and it would make you fall in love with her. It would focus on the relationship between Scott and Jean, her dealing with her expanding powers, and then the trigger that sends her over the top and turns her into the Dark Phoenix. It would’ve been so much more fun had Wolverine come back to the mansion at the end of Days of Future Past (2014) and see Jean (played by Famke Janssen) and Scott (James Marsden). They introduce him to their daughter, Rachel, and then Sophie Turner steps out. Then, after the credits, Jean awakes from a nightmare. Having polished her perception of other people’s memories as a telepath, she sees the end of X-Men: The Last Stand in Wolverine’s memories. She sees Jean go bad and Wolverine kill her. Thinking, ‘Holy cow, what was that?’ she sees all these energy crackles around her and feels a sense of urgency. She runs to Rachel’s room and sees these crackles starting to coalesce into the shape of the Phoenix. Two years later, in X-Men: Apocalypse (2016), Apocalypse is about to transfer his essence into Jean, when Rachel steps forward to rescue her mother and manifests the Phoenix. At the end of Apocalypse, you actually see the Phoenix manifest around her, which they forgot about for Dark Phoenix. Whoops. She defeats Apocalypse and, in the process, embraces the power of the Phoenix completely. And that’s when the tragic events of the saga begin.
My frustration with Captain Marvel (2019) was that all of the powers that she uses in the film were powers that I gave to Carol Danvers, but also those that were initially Jean’s – she was just dead and couldn’t use them. That’s why the film had to go through reshoots. Marvel Studios felt that they were too similar and they wanted Captain Marvel to be the first dominant female character from their side.
I was going to ask you why you think the comic is still so resonant today. To me, it’s this classic story of good vs evil, both fighting for space inside one person, but as the creator, you might have a different perspective
It’s arrogant, but one might as well ask, ‘Why is Shakespeare valid today?’ A good story is a good story. My goal, every time I start typing, is to excite the reader, make them turn the page, make them fall in love with the characters and want to see what happens next. That’s why I do this – to energise, impassion and excite the readers.
To have crafted a story, where at a convention, three generations of readers have come up to me and said how much they enjoy it, how much it meant to them, I defy any writer in the world to not be excited by that
Has your relationship with the saga changed in any way over the years? It’s only grown in popularity, has that affected how you look back on it or analyse it?
I don’t think so. (Writer and artist) John Byrne has his own vision of how the series should’ve ended and where we could’ve gone with it. He put 28 pages of it up online a few weeks ago. I started reading and was fascinated. I didn’t agree with a lot of it, I thought perhaps he missed a lot of possibilities, but the art, story and characters were all things that I recognised and enjoyed. And I kept turning the page.
Looking back on the past is fun at a convention. To have crafted a story, where at a convention, three generations of readers have come up to me and said how much they enjoy it, how much it meant to them, I defy any writer in the world to not be excited by that. To not feel like they’ve done their job. My response was that if people are going to react to something I’ve written on such a visceral and emotional level, my responsibility is to make sure that whatever comes next is better.
When it comes to books being made into movies, there’s usually pressure to stay true to the source material. With comic books, there’s a culture of loosely picking out specific storylines and arcs and then adapting or changing them for the screen. Does that irk you?
If one’s reading Game of Thrones or Harry Potter, what one’s reading over the better part of 10 years are the same characters derived from the same source material. With comics, they’re the same characters, but presented over 30-40-50 years by a multitude of creators. The one significant difference between X-Men and the other comics is that the creator was foolish enough to stick around for the better part of two decades. It’s all my vision, for better or worse. So to current readers or filmmakers, that’s the X-Men equivalent of Game of Thrones or Harry Potter. That’s where they look to see how these characters were created and defined and what the stories of their lives might be. In 10 years, who knows? You might have people who like Grant Morrisson’s work or Joss Whedon’s work and you might see elements of that become more prevalent in film or TV adaptations. People always ask me what my favourite story is and my answer is always the same – the one I haven’t written yet.
I created the source material for Dark Phoenix and X-Men: Days of Future Past . I‘ve appeared in the films but beyond that there’s been no involvement. That’s the fundamental difference between a concept like X-Men, which is corporate-owned, and concepts like Game of Thrones or Harry Potter, which are not. The studios have to keep JK Rowling and George RR Martin in the loop because they’re the owners of the properties. In this case, Marvel is the owner and the people who write the comics are just its employees.
Dark Phoenix was a game changer when it came out – do you think we’re seeing enough innovation and complexity in the kinds of superhero films we’re making today or have we just scratched the surface?
The challenge for superhero movies is the commitment that the studios have to make to the actors and vice versa. Over the past five years, there have been reports of Chadwick Boseman signing a five or seven-picture deal. Marvel Studios has announced that they want Tom Holland to sign a seven-picture deal. They want to guarantee the product for the audience for a significant span of movie time. The minute that I, as the audience, see that, I know that a level of suspense doesn’t exist. I know now that even if they all die in a film, they’ll come back in the next one. The money’s already been spent. The investment is too huge. I believe the production costs on the Avengers movies were a billion dollars. That’s insane. But then you start totalling just how much the 26 stars had to get paid just to get in the door. That’s a quarter billion right there. Robert Downey Jr. probably got a quarter billion himself. The investment is so huge, the result has to be a blockbuster.
The alternative is Dark Phoenix, where, between initial production costs and reshoot costs, that film is well over $200 million and unfortunately its box office is not anywhere near even breaking even. I find that infuriating because it’s a really good character movie. The problem is that it’s the third movie in a four-movie sweep, the spectrum of which is huge. Captain Marvel, you’re dealing with alien races and extraordinary things that span galaxies. Avengers: Endgame, forget about it. And then you have Spider-Man: Far From Home, which picks up from where this left off. How do you compete when you’re in the middle of an avalanche? My hope is that with the X-Men and Fantastic Four re-embraced by Marvel, these movies will do better.