I’ve had a chance to meet legendary X-Men writer Chris Claremont twice in my comic convention travels, and the last time, he even let me ask him questions for AiPT! After a few minutes, it was clear Claremont had a high opinion of both himself and his work. I guess you would too if stories you wrote decades ago were being turned into Hollywood blockbusters to this day.
But there was just something about Claremont’s attitude (both times) that made me dwell on that saying, “never meet your heroes.” That is, until I saw director Patrick Meaney’s documentary, Chris Claremont’s X-Men. This extended cut of a previously released version is a must-see for X-Men fans, and will surely leave many rethinking the history of their favorite mutant heroes. And, yes, falling for Claremont’s charm (he originally wanted to be an actor, so he’s a natural on camera).
Claremont is, of course, the writer most associated with defining the X-Men for generations of fans. The scribe may not have created Jean Grey, but he gifted her with the corrupting power of the Phoenix. He didn’t come up with Wolverine, but he sure did give Logan that savage nobility at the core of his character. I could go on, but I’m trying to prevent this review from becoming wordier than your average Claremont word bubble.
It wasn’t always like this, however. When Claremont took over writing duties on Uncanny X-Men, who would have known it was the beginning of a run that would last for 17 consecutive years and spawn one iconic storyline after another? It wasn’t something many creators have a chance to do–take control of a mainstream series with a cast of undefined characters, such as Storm, Colossus and Nightcrawler, and take them in whatever direction he wanted. Most of the time, with little editorial interference… except when a character destroys an entire planet and its innocent inhabitants.
Meaney is smart to focus so much on the early days of Claremont’s X-Men career, as it can be hard for X-fans like myself to imagine a time when Wolverine and the gang weren’t household names. It’s like being born decades after it was decided Citizen Kane is one of the greatest films ever made–it’s just something you accept. And Claremont’s rise in the comic industry isn’t just chronicled by the man himself, but several of the industry’s other notable icons, including controversial former Marvel editor-in-chief Jim Shooter and the late Len Wein, Wolverine’s co-creator.
Probably the most interesting–and entertaining–interviews are those that involve Claremont and his former X-Men editors Ann Nocenti and Louise Simonson. There’s real chemistry between these three, along with respect and all the other good stuff that comes with a strong working relationship. It’s fascinating to see how these friends’ personal relationships influenced the stories that continuously wowed readers throughout the 1980s.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is perhaps the film’s most infuriating interview subject: Deadpool’s father Rob Liefeld. There’s no biased editing on Meaney’s part here–this is 100 percent, authentic Liefeld, talking about how he had to make Marvel’s mutants cool again, starting with Simonson’s New Mutants. When you hear that Liefeld would pretty much draw whatever he wanted, leaving Simonson to figure out how to insert a plot afterwards, you can’t help but feel she was bullied off the title in favor of the hot new kid on the block. A kid who was all about the visuals, not the stories they’re meant to support.
Sadly, this mentality, which seeped into Marvel in the early ’90s, extended to superstar artist Jim Lee’s time on Uncanny X-Men, as well as the book that would break industry records: X-Men #1. And by issue 3 of this new series, Claremont was gone. After 17 years of groundbreaking work, building the X-Men into a sales juggernaut, early ’90s Marvel didn’t even bother acknowledging his departure.
Believe me, it’ll piss you off to see Claremont explain the experience–especially after you see the smug Liefeld interviews. But it’s something all comic book fans should be aware of, as these types of issues (sales over story and screwing creators over) continue to this day. Never forget how icons like Jack Kirby, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were treated after creating publisher’s bread and butter superheroes.
As a long-time X-Men fan, it’s hard for me to criticize this documentary, because we’re lucky it even exists. Let’s face it, comic fans, there aren’t a whole lot of chances to see our favorite creators discuss their work at length.
But I guess length is one nitpick I have. At just over an hour, I feel as though this documentary could have been a lot longer. I’d especially love to see Claremont talk about the X-Men stories he wrote when he returned to Marvel in 2000. It seems he left on a similarly sour note the second time around.
Also, if you’re wondering what’s up with that Hugh Jackman impersonator reading the X-Men comic–cosplayers dressed as your favorite X-Men pop up every now and then in this film. They serve as a great reminder as to why you can’t always accurately adapt comic book costumes from the page to the screen. Because… they look silly. But, I’m a guy who made a visor out of cardboard so I could be Cyclops one Halloween, so I poke fun out of love.
So, if you’re an X-Men fan, this documentary, which is now available on VOD, is highly recommended. And if you’re a comics fan who may not have always understood the appeal of the X-Men, I also suggest checking it out. Through this film, you realize just how much the X-Men was an auteur’s book at its creative peak, and not the carefully controlled golden goose it’s become.