John Belushi. George Lucas. Stan Lee. Sir Ian McKellen. George R.R. Martin. Hugh Jackman. Peter Dinklage. These are just some of the luminaries Chris Claremont has worked alongside through the years.
But the real A-listers in Claremont’s life have names like Wolverine, Storm, Cyclops and Nightcrawler. Claremont, 64, is known as the definitive writer of Marvel Comics’ “X-Men,” co-creating a host of mutant superheroes including Gambit, Rogue and Kitty Pryde. His classic stories, such as the Dark Phoenix saga, “God Loves, Man Kills” and “Days of Future Past,” have been adapted into several of the blockbuster, big-screen “X-Men” movies produced by 20th Century Fox.
Based in New York, Claremont began his career as an intern at Marvel in 1969. A student at Bard College, Claremont hoped to intern at Mad Magazine, where his parents’ friend, legendary artist Al Jaffee, worked. But Jaffee told Claremont’s parents, “No way in hell am I going to allow my good friends’ son descend into that pit of corruption, vice and hedonism!” Instead, Jaffee got Claremont an internship at Marvel.
A former actor and theater student who had cameos in two of the “X-Men” films, Claremont perfectly imitates then-Marvel Editor Stan Lee calling him up for the first time, opening the conversation with, “Hello there, true believer!”
“Pretty much the first words out of his mouth were, ‘We’re a poor company, we can’t afford to pay you very much,’” Claremont recalls, “and I said, ‘Well, this is for college credit. We’re not allowed to ask for money.’ There was this microsecond pause and he said, ‘You’re hired!’ They eventually kicked in train fare so I could afford to get to work and back.”
With legendary talents such as Lee, Roy Thomas, John Romita Sr. and Jack Kirby, the 1969 Marvel bullpen was like working with “the late-’90s Yankees,” Claremont says. “Talk about a primal, real-world course in the creation of comic books from point A to point Zed. You couldn’t find better.”
The internship led to a part-time job at Marvel, and in the mid-’70s he was hired full-time and named as writer of the revived “Uncanny X-Men” comic, working with artists Dave Cockrum and John Byrne on a celebrated run that redefined the series. Claremont and comics superstar Frank Miller also collaborated on the original “Wolverine” miniseries that heavily influenced the 2013 film “The Wolverine.”
Claremont’s stories are known for not only thrilling action but also characters imbued with humanity. “There’s got to be confrontation, there’s got to be adversaries,” he says, “but even cops take off their uniforms occasionally. Even active military put on a pair of blue jeans or a skirt and have moments of normal life amidst the required tumult. And the opportunities in those moments to broaden the breadth and depth of the character are what makes the book that much more irresistible, one hopes, to the audience. … They’re the moments when the reader bonds not with Wolverine but Logan.”
Among his career highlights, Claremont collaborated on fiction projects with “Star Wars” creator George Lucas and “Game of Thrones” author George R.R. Martin. He also played a congressman in a scene opposite “Game of Thrones” star Peter Dinklage in 2014’s “X-Men: Days of Future Past.” Over the last 16 years, Claremont has been on movie sets watching acclaimed actors such as Ian McKellen, Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart breathe life into his characters. He’s currently working on a movie treatment for a Gambit solo film starring Channing Tatum.
But one of his favorite show-biz stories is the time he wrote a Marvel comic teaming Spider-Man with the original “Saturday Night Live” cast. For research, he spent time behind the scenes and at cast wrap parties during SNL’s third season. He eventually was treated to the sight of John Belushi “in samurai mode” at Marvel’s office, dueling another Marvel staffer with three-foot rulers. “We had one rocking time!” recalls Claremont, who was later invited by Belushi to the “Animal House” cast party.
As for his most famous co-workers, the X-Men, Claremont says, “I’ve known these guys for, God help me, the better part of 50 years. You don’t choose favorites at that point. They’re all favorites. … They’re all in a way my kids.” S
Chris Claremont will speak at VA Comicon on May 9 from 1-2 p.m. at Richmond Raceway, 600 E. Laburnum Ave. Tickets are $9.95 for children and $14.95 for adults. vacomicon.com.
Editor's note: This reflects a correction to the print version that included the incorrect Comicon website address.