Last February the good folks at Amazing Arizona Comic Con were kind enough to hook Nerdvana up with meeting one of the most interesting men in the world, the living legend and author of countess history-making comics and sci-fi/fantasy books, Chris Claremont.
In this final piece of conversation we touch on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ influence, missed movie opportunities, the current Iron Fist controversy, the state of the comic book industry and what the future holds for this incredible author.
You can check out Part I of our interview here: Chris Claremont Interview (Part I): Serial storytelling, Steampunk and the Superstitions; and Part II here: Chris Claremont Interview (Part II) – X-Men v Superman v Batman v Deadpool v John Carter v The Martian. We begin Part III of our discussion picking up, again, on Mr. Claremont‘s awe-inspiring Arizona-themed John Carter tale:
NERDVANA: I was really impressed with how you were able to tap into Edgar Rice Burroughs’ voice in “The Ghost That Haunts the Superstition Mountains” story. It really seemed like something he could have written. How did you get into that place…did you reread the ERB stories or…?
CHIS CLAREMONT: I was trying to…yeah…The Princess of Mars, the first three [Mars] volumes. But that was my childhood, reading all this madcap stuff.
How were you first introduced to Edgar Rice Burroughs work?
At the library, I think, I used to walk home every week from the bookmobile with 20 or 30 books, and then bring them back the next week. We only had three TV channels and they were very boring. The fun is that just words and your imagination you can create anything.
“…the way I was looking at it was…what if? What if instead of going from here to there we went from there to here? What if back home you’re a Princess, but here you’re a ‘redskin?’”
With [The Ghost that Haunts the Superstition Mountains] the way I was looking at it was…what if? What if instead of going from here to there we went from there to here? What if back home you’re a Princess, but here you’re a ‘redskin?’ How do you balance the scales?
In the story there’s a point where she doesn’t see the sense of wearing clothes, because all they’ll do is slow you down. If you are in a fight the trick is to be so good that you don’t have to worry about getting wounded, to be so cool that you’ll kill the other guy first; so to cover yourself with a two-tons of clothes is a mystery to her.
When you were putting the [Superstitions] story together, did you do research on Arizona history to bring in those real historical characters [Cochise, Tom Jeffords and General Oliver Howard] – or was that history you were already aware of…?
Oh, yeah – six one way and half-a-dozen the other – research is half the fun. You never know what you’ll find out. Again, if you can give it a practical enough foundation, then you can happily go wild with the fantasy. I think that’s the differentiation between any classic, memorable, science-fiction story versus an also-ran story. You immediately bond with a character and you can immediately visualize the place, whether it’s Baracas or Barsoom.
What are the odds that we’ll ever see the rest of that story?
Ohhh…I wouldn’t put money on it – anything is possible. Writing it is one thing…writing it and finding a publisher that’s interested in it is another; and I assume Disney has proprietary control over it.
Actually, I think that the Edgar Rice Burroughs estate has regained control of the John Carter copyright.
Well, I have no desire to go get into a fight with them; and I’ve also done enough work for hire in my life, I’d like to think that, for better or worse, the Willow books would be the last time I’d do extensive work for hire. For me it was a chance to work for Lucas, and on Willow, which was fun.
But, as my wife so eloquently puts it, that was three-years I could have been writing my own books. You know, I figured I had plenty of time, but that’s a dangerous presumption that gets more dangerous every day. And now that I have my AARP card…ugggh…and I’m not even retired yet… Jesus!
“I figured I had plenty of time, but that’s a dangerous presumption that gets more dangerous every day.”
What do you have in the works now?
I’m working on finishing a novel, and then trying to sell it; then work on the next novel. But this one is, hopefully a series, spinning off characters and concepts from Sovereign Seven that I did with DC about 10 years ago…no…more like 15 years…oh God…20 years ago!?! Oh sh!t…a while ago!
It’s a more challenging publishing environment than it used to be and the frustration is, like it or not, most of my creative work has been for somebody else. So in any other publishing environment the success of the X-Men would have been a springboard to more and better down the line…and for a while it was, until Marvel joined up with Disney and the X-Men were part of Fox.
We thought that Fox taking the rights [to X-Men] back in ’98 was great, but functionally speaking, as far as Marvel is concerned, from a publishing standpoint, X-Men are not high on the priority list; which means my stuff isn’t high on a priority list.
Nothing I can do about that within the corporate structure as it exists. So I’ve got to go out and do my stuff and reinvent the world from my perspective, under my ownership, and see what happens then. But that takes time.
The reality from a Hollywood perspective is that none of this is ever a short game. Roy Thomas was doing film proposals back in the seventies; I had meetings back in the late-seventies; Stan and I had a meeting to pitch X-Men to [James] Cameron.
You want a ‘what if’ scenario? Cameron had just set up Lightstorm [Entertainment] as an independent production house; and had just done The Abyss; and had just broken with, I think, Fox. Stan and I went out for a meeting with the idea to pitch the X-Men. And in the pre-conference we had with his people Cameron would be executive producer and he had a great new talent to be the director; [they said] we’d loved her, she was totally cool and of course he’d be looking over her shoulder; you haven’t heard much about her but trust me you’ll love her – Kathryn Bigelow – you’ll love her.
So [sighs], we had a shot with Kathryn Bigelow [The Hurt Locker] back in the day. This was when my vision of Wolverine was Bob Hoskins and my vision of Storm was Angela Bassett. So we’re sitting there and we start the conversation and Stan looks at Cameron and says [imitating Stan Lee’s voice], ‘I hear you really like Spider-Man?’ That’s where the [X-Men] conversation ended.
We’re sitting there and he and Stan start talking Spider-Man and you could just see X-Men just shrivel up. We knew it and his Lightstorm guys knew it…because Cameron decided he would write and direct Spider-Man himself and the moment word of that got out it became a feeding frenzy. Because Spider-Man had been optioned so many times everybody wanted a piece of it; Carolco [Pictures] especially, even though they were in Chapter 11. So X-Men went ‘pfffft’ for another ten years.
At least Bryan’s film got done; so, like I said, you have to look at it from a long haul perspective. Even if you self-publish a book, the return on a book is not whether anybody is going to make a movie out of it…it’s whether anybody is going to buy it. My focus has got to be on someone buying it now; getting it written now, selling it now and see what happens next when it happens.
On Marvel’s John Carter series – those books were all original, not adaptations of Burroughs’ stories, correct?
Mine were, but Marv Wolfman’s were less so; he was adapting the first chunk. My arrogant attitude was after the first two or three he [Burroughs] started playing with John Carter’s son, and then his cousin Trudy, and the fifth Thern from the left…so I figured so much had changed about our knowledge of Mars that I wanted to play with that and not so much with repackaging classic tropes.
I figured there’s more suspense if we don’t know what happened. The nice thing about Burroughs is there’s a lot of gray space where…’some months later John Carter did this.’ Well, what happened during those months? Ahhh…that’s another story for another time; but I figured this is the other time that those stories are for.
Have you ever written any Tarzan stories? Did that character capture your imagination the way that John Carter did?
No, I mean, Africa is a totally different space and Tarzan never quite intrigued me the same way. Though there is apparently a new film coming out this summer, so if at first you don’t succeed… The thing is that it fundamentally comes down to the story. The beauty of the John Carter comics was that Marv Wolfman and especially Dave Cockrum had a remarkable visual sense of Barsoom and a commitment to Barsoom.
It was funny, at New York Comic Con, after the book came out, like thirty years ago, back when Wendy Pini was still doing costumes and costume parades – she and Richard [Pini] were doing Elfquest, but she was judging costume parades – and this girl came out as Dejah Thoris in Dave Cockrum’s outfit and she was stunning! She was like sixteen and tall and appropriately physiqued, and the costume was brilliant, with a tremendous amount of gossamer wire to hold it together. And she stood there like this…[rigid]…because you could see the subtext in her brain…’If I stand up straight, something is going to pop and I will die of embarrassment.’
So Wendy goes over to her and says, ‘Look, you’re costume is absolutely fantastic, but you’ve gotta own it. If it goes pop it goes pop. Live with it. But if you are going to wear it, wear it.’ And she won best costume, or one of the best costumes…deservedly so. But that’s the thing, you’ve gotta find a way to convey reality in primal terms that we can all look at and go, ’Woah, that’s so cool!” In a way the more alien the environment the more human and comprehensible the stories have to become.
One of the coolest things, during my tenure, was an issue that’s centered on Tars Tarkas where he gets involved in the usual fight for his life…and it’s the second thing Frank Miller had drawn [see John Carter, Warlord of Mars #18.] I owe Jo Duffy for that one – because she was shepherding him around and shoving him at everybody.
What Frank did was to sit down and work out how you fight if you’ve got four-arms. It was the shape of Daredevil to come, not to mention The Dark Knight, in terms of him working out ‘how can I make this plausible as a visual to the readers?’
It was much the same for a Spidey/FF Team-Up anniversary [see Marvel Team-Up #100] that Frank and I did. The crux of it is that Spider-Man is possessed by Karma as she is trying to find her siblings, her brother and sister, and she is an illegal alien…a Vietnamese boat-person. But what we had was four pages, two double spreads, of ‘Hi, I just possessed Spider-Man and I have no idea as to how he works…’
This was the way we used to do comics in those days; for those who never read Spider-Man and had no idea what he could do we gave them a little four page introduction, because she had no idea what he could do either. So you can be Karma and learn as she does… ‘Oh, I can stick to walls…I can do this…I can do that…this is so cool…this is creepy…I’m hanging upside down on the building.’
Within those four pages you knew what she could do and more importantly you knew what he could do…and we’re off and running. Embracing that sense of wonder and channeling it through the reader is how you bring them in and how you carry them along…because…if it all comes down to twenty words on the splash page, [dryly] ‘This is the character…blah…and he does this…Zzzzzz…’
The beauty of it was Frank had three vertical panels of Spidey grabbing onto a building and just sliding down a wall, gouging holes into it, and in each panel he’s getting lower until he stops and is like, ‘I can stick to walls…Holy cow!’ That’s the fun part about comics for me.
That’s one of the things I find so boring about a lot of modern storytelling is that it’s just heads…people just standing and talking to each other. Screw that! Talking is fine, but you’ve got to be doing something…more importantly doing something that explores the character.
“That’s one of the things I find so boring about a lot of modern storytelling is that it’s just heads…people just standing and talking to each other. Screw that! Talking is fine, but you’ve got to be doing something…more importantly doing something that explores the character.”
If you are John Carter and you are narrating a story…fine…but give us a sense, through that sequence of panels, of what it’s like to be on one of his airships and to be on Barsoom. There’s all this technology…they have an atmosphere reactor. Why are they still just stuck on the planet? Hasn’t anybody figured out how to build rocket ships? Why haven’t they established a way of contacting Earth – how’s that for a little interaction? Have they noticed the Voyager missions? Did anyone come over and leave a souvenir on Matt Damon’s doorstep – a welcome wagon?
The thing about the [John Carter] movie is that you had so much elegant visual texture that you’ve got to do something with it. You’ve got to have a cool story that makes the visual texture a supporting element in the tale and not a means unto itself. If you are spending more time looking at the really cool ornithopters and air-battleships and not the people…[sighs]…not a good sign.
Case in point, the first fifty seconds of Star Wars, a little ship goes by and then a big ship comes by…and comes by…and comes by…and comes by…and comes by…until finally you’ve filled the entire width of the 70mm screen and then it goes by and you can’t even see the little ship because it’s way out in the distance and this big-ass thing is chasing it – and we sat there and didn’t say another word for two hours. Then the first thing that happens after that is we come on board and we meet the robots and we see the crew fighting off the Imperials and we meet Dejah Thoris, and suddenly it’s all about people – not things.
I think you had a Freudian slip there…you said ‘Dejah Thoris.’[Laughs] You know you’ve got one beautiful Princess you’ve got another. Leia Organa. Anyway, like I said, the first twenty minutes of the film [Star Wars] you had that bonding with the characters. In John Carter, would it have been different if it been a more kinetic actor than Taylor? I don’t know…that’s the mystery of casting. That’s why, when you are talking about a movie like that, casting is the make or break decision; because unless you have someone you will recognize or, more importantly, bond with as an audience – it all goes poof.
A young Errol Flynn would have been like, ‘Woohaa, we’re outta here, we’re gonna have some fun babe.’ I’m not sure about a young Clint Eastwood, but definitely a young James Garner…I’m not sure he would have worked wearing a toga, any more than Paul Newman worked in The Silver Chalice…but, you know, someone like that.
Looking at the new Star Wars…the trailer nailed it…you see special effect, special effect, special effect, and then suddenly [space-door opening sound] ‘Chewie, we’re back!’ Lights [snaps fingers] …and there he is! Okay, I’m in, because it’s Harrison Ford. You need someone like that.
From what I hear Hugh Jackman is going to be around for just one more Wolverine movie before he retires from the role. Who do you think could take his place?
Oh, he’s been saying that for years… I think what Marvel would like to do is X-23. You’re almost talking about switching from Sean Connery [as 007] …and we’ve been arguing that one ever since. So I don’t really know, it depends on how you view Wolverine. Do you want an actor in their thirties? This is where producers earn their money, because you have to be able to look off the radar too to people who, perhaps, are not famous but that have established themselves in the theatre. If they are on screen they’re a known quantity, if they are not a known quantity then do you want them for this role? They are huge shoes to fill…literally.
That was the argument when we were doing X-Men Forever [2009.] The assistant-editor on the book, just as a giggle, suggested, ‘If this is the Marvel you’ll never see coming, why don’t we kill off Wolverine right off the bat?’ I kind of wanted to do that for years – so we did it.
We didn’t even kill him in the first issue, we killed him in the preview. So the first issue opens with the finding of his body… and the book died…but that’s a whole different story…and the two may not be connected.
“There’s a guy that a sneaky part of me would like to see play Wolverine, that people wouldn’t accept and probably would never see it coming…Idris Elba.”
There’s a guy that a sneaky part of me would like to see play Wolverine, that people wouldn’t accept and probably would never see it coming…Idris Elba. He’s been talked about as being the next Jame Bond, because he’s got panache.
The problem with Logan is that you need somebody with very, very rough edges…and Hugh does that. I don’t think he’s right [for the part], but someone along the lines of Gerard Butler, who’s starring in the Gods of Egypt and London Has Fallen.
Speaking of Idris Elba as Wolverine and Gods of Egypt with their whitewashed casting issues; another controversy that has come up recently is the politicking to cast Iron Fist as being of Asian descent in the upcoming Netflix series? Having written many Iron Fist stories, what are your thoughts?
Danny!?! I mean, okay, if you want…but the fact is Iron First comes out of the old trope of young white kid gets stranded in the Himalayas and comes back as [a superhero.] The key, when I was writing it – and Larry [Hama] had established it already, is he’s a fish out of water. He was a fish out of water in K’un-Lun because he’s the only white-kid on the block, and he’s a fish out of water in New York because he’s from K’un-Lun…and while he’s a white kid he’s an Asian white kid. If you want to cast an Asian actor to play Iron Fist, I have no problem with that, but he should be a totally American kid.
I mean, that was the whole trope behind Jubilee. Her parents are [Chinese] mainland expats…from the Beijing side of the wall, but she’s a total ‘lala’ kid, and the culture clashes because she’s an upper-class Los Angeles mallrat.
I don’t see anything inherently wrong with it; you’ve just got to make the relationship work. You could even make him mixed-race…white mom, Asian father…white father/ Asian Mom…to emphasize the fish out of water aspect of it.
The point from my perspective, writing it back then, was building up to the seminal revelation, which was he and Misty [Knight] were a done deal, and neither of them cared. Danny being from K’un-Lun had no inhibitions, per se, from a race standpoint. Misty was his girl, and he was her guy.
Misty, being an ex-cop, might understand the implications better than he does…but that’s the trope I was playing with. You could probably play as effectively with an Asian lead as a white lead. Also the passage of thirty years has changed so that interracial romance is not quite as ‘Holy cow, what are you doing?’ as it was back in ’74.
What are your thoughts on the current state of comics, regarding the constant reboots and redos of the various comic book universes…?
I don’t know, I actually and honestly don’t pay attention anymore. It’s not my business. I haven’t written a comic in over a year and I’m not likely to.
The problem is that most editors and most publishers are used to and happy to think of writers as transients. You hire Grant [Morrison] for a year or two years, three years; you hire Fabian [Nicieza] for two years; you hire [Brian Michael] Bendis for three years on a series; he does his shtick and moves on. Then you hire the next guy and the next guy and the next guy; and each guy tells their arc and moves on, and basically it could turn out to be the same arc over and over again.
“The gift I got, by dumbass accident, was being there for better than sixteen-years. I could watch everything evolve, I could play with the guys; I could create my own world within the Marvel world.”
The gift I got, by dumbass accident, was being there for better than sixteen-years. I could watch everything evolve, I could play with the guys; I could create my own world within the Marvel world.
My big concern, years ago, when Grant Morrison decided to make the X-Men public, was that if you do that where do you go from there? If there are enough mutants that they are public and popular, they have websites, where’s the mystery and more importantly where’s the danger?
The reality is, geopolitically speaking, if you suddenly establish one morning that mutants or Inhumans are numbered now in millions, you’ve turned the fundamental balance of the fictional universe from…here is the world that is akin to the world that we live in, but is inhabited by a handful, a literal handful among the seven-billion population, of people that can do incredible things, the only advantage humanity has is that there is not that many of them, and that is where you are telling your stories. If you suddenly say here is a world of seven-billion people of which a million are super-powered Inhumans; then you are not telling superhero adventures, you are talking about Neanderthal/ Cro-Magnon. A million people is the foundation of a world…times ten.
If you think about it, the human race as we know it basically came out of maybe about 1,000 to 10,000 Homo sapiens in Africa, 25,000 years ago. Well, if you are talking about a million super-powered people scattered around the world you are basically starting an arc which is the extinction, in evolutionary terms, of the human race…whether they like it or not.
Now, that could be a fascinating story or story arc or concept, but…it also does what the Marvel that I knew, that Stan created, was fiercely dedicated to not doing – which is taking it out of the real world. You’re putting it into a Star City, Metropolis, Gotham, Gateway City that is DC, where they do it all the time. Suddenly it’s not the same world.
For me the things I love about Stan and Jack’s Fantastic Four were them riding in a taxi cab; where a TV cameraman looking up at Galactus on the top of the Baxter Building asks a cop if this is the end of the world; Spider-Man realizing he’s helpless against something like this; and it all comes down to Reed and Sue and Ben and Johnny. It’s real people relating to a totally transcendent and unreal event.
I guess the problem now is that comics, superhero adventures, are so divorced from any world that I’m interested in that I don’t want to read them anymore. But I’m not the audience, so that may not be a problem. But I kind of like the idea for keeping it rare so people can have their ooh and ahh moments.
NERDVANA would like to extend a huge shout out to Amazing Arizona Comic Con for arranging our sit-down with Chris Claremont, and to Mr. Claremont for graciously and patiently spending an unforgettable afternoon with us. Salute!
READ: Chris Claremont Interview (Part I): Serial storytelling, Steampunk and the Superstitions
READ: Chris Claremont Interview (Part II) – X-Men v Superman v Batman v Deadpool v John Carter v The Martian