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Chris Claremont Interview (Part I): Serial storytelling, Steampunk and the Superstitions

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Legendary author, Chris Claremont - Phoenix’s Sheraton Grand hotel, Feb. 12, 2016
Legendary author, Chris Claremont – Phoenix’s Sheraton Grand Hotel, Feb. 12, 2016

During the 2016 Amazing Arizona Comic Con Nerdvana was honored to be able to talk to Chris Claremont, the legendary writer of the Uncanny X-Men, John Carter, Warlord of Mars, and Iron Fist – to name just a few of the comic book titles he’s authored over his distinguished career.

What we thought was going to be a rushed pre-convention Q & A turned into nearly a three-hour discussion over lunch at downtown Phoenix’s Sheraton Grand hotel, where we touched on everything from Star Wars to Superman v Batman, the Steampunk genre, Edgar Rice Burroughs, the X-Movies and Deadpool. We also talked about a little known short-story of his that brings John Carter of Mars back to Arizona and the Superstition Mountains.

Claremont oozes confident knowledge of history, science and the literary and theatrical arts. It’s surreal enough to be interviewing a living legend of his stature, but when said legend is operating at several intelligence levels above you it makes the whole thing more than little unnerving.

Fortunately, the author graciously overlooked my fumbling fanboy foibles and provided thoughtful and entertaining observations on his past work and the current state of pop culture. We hope you’ll enjoy reading his compelling commentary as much as we enjoyed collecting it for you.

Sheraton Grand Phoenix – 2-12-2016

NERDVANA: Your short story, “The Ghost That Haunts the Superstition Mountains” [from the 2012 Under the Moons of Mars anthology], brings John Carter and friends back to Earth during the height of the Apache Wars in the Arizona Territory. As a John Carter of Mars fan and a native Arizonan, who lives a stone’s throw away from the Superstitions, this was the ultimate John Carter story.

Chris Claremont: Well, the whole arc is a lot fun, I think, because the visual trope as a fantasist is instead of John Carter being the lone human on Mars, now you have Dejah and Tars being the lone Martians on Earth; and I figured I was playing it as a gigantic culture clash akin, in many ways, to what a reader would be used to finding in something like Star Trek. You know, boldly going where no man has gone before and a first contact between alien species, except in reverse – instead of John Carter on Mars, it’s Dejah Thoris on Earth.

The Ghost That Haunts the Superstition Mountains - art by John Picacio
The Ghost That Haunts the Superstition Mountains – art by John Picacio

You set the short-story up with it starting at Chapter 11, so there are a lot of things that have happened leading up to it, and a lot of stuff that potentially happens after…

Yeah, the chapter is in the middle, but I roughed out the whole arc back in the day, before Marvel lost the license; I just pulled what I thought was a cool bit out of it. So we never see the adversary, the white Martian, just one of his representatives running around the Superstitions with a radium rifle.

I loved your idea of bringing Barsoomian technology to Earth in the 1800s and fabricating weapons with that information; but you wrote this story in the late-seventies, long before the current “Steampunk” craze?

[Laughs] I’ve always been ahead of my time. I came up with the concept then, but the story I wrote two or three years ago. I tend not to look at things as labels; I’m quite happy to leave that to the readers. What I find fascinating is the sociopolitical environment, whether it’s Victorian England or 6th century England.

The beauty of the 600s in Eurasian history is it’s right on the cusp of this huge sociopolitical transformation that accompanied the rise of Islam. So to me there is a lot of fertile ground to play with in terms of what if you turn right instead of left. It’s all a matter of how the characters fit together and how the events fit together and what is fun.

The sci-fi genre mashed with real history is one of the things I loved about your Superstitions story, where John Carter, Dejah Thoris and Tars Tarkas find themselves in the old west helping to foster a peaceful relationship between the Apaches and the U.S. Cavalry.

The trick, of course, is that at the same time the events of the story will have a material effect on the eventual survival of Barsoom [Mars]. Because what the white Martian expat has in mind is not restricted to one planet. It’s a two-way street. If he can conquer Earth, then what’s to stop him from coming after Barsoom?

I also liked how you worked in a symbolic commentary on the current real-world arms race.

That’s the fun of science-fiction…while you’re creating a world of long ago in a galaxy far away, it’s actually the world right outside your window with slightly different costumes and perhaps slightly more extreme physiognomy. It’s star-destroyers instead of Nimitz carriers.

The beauty of a concept like John Carter or Game of Thrones for that matter is that it allows you to play with tropes that are part of the real world now, but in terms that keep them at a little distance and allow your comments to be a little better cloaked. Perhaps you could come up with a series of political relationships analogous for the chaos we’re watching now on TV with this year’s election.

“That’s the fun of science-fiction…while you’re creating a world of long ago in a galaxy far away, it’s actually the world right outside your window with slightly different costumes and perhaps slightly more extreme physiognomy.”

Of course, you are best known for your work on the X-Men where you routinely used the mutant superheroes to comment on society’s ills. But how did you come to work on Marvel’s John Carter series while you were neck-deep writing the Uncanny X-Men?

Well I wasn’t ‘neck-deep’ when John Carter came out, not at the very beginning. Marv [Wolfman] had done it for a year. He actually set up the comic book franchise and he worked with Gil Kane and Carmine Infantino and Dave Cockrum.

Dave, as usual, had extraordinary visuals for Dejah Thoris and the Martians. I mean, the one practical advantage of prose over any sort of visual presentation, whether it’s comics or movies, is that you can quite easily say, ‘John Carter was amazed as Dejah Thoris stood before him magnificently,’ and except for extreme pieces of jewelry, altogether naked. As was Tardos Mors, Mors Kajak and all the other Martians, men or women, they all ran around starkers. You can’t really do that in a comic book and you really, really can’t do it on film – unless, of course, you’re going for a totally different rating.

The John Carter, Warlord of Mars comics, I think, did push the edge though, at least for back in the day…

The concept of comics pushing an edge is exclusively, I think, in the province of the artist. When you have someone, again, like Cockrum, it is pushing the edge in the vision of how can I create this beautiful, alien, cool world and make it a practical reality…and the challenge is always, what works?

[I took a moment to ensure my phone’s voice recorder was still functioning properly and cursed my dependence on technology – which prompted an epic ‘tech-fail’ story from Mr. Claremont.]

Just to put everything in perspective: I was sitting at a table with George Lucas and he’s basically briefing me on what I can do and not do with the novels I’m writing derived from Willow; and I had my tape recorder and we’re just going and going and after 45-minutes the tape runs out.

I reach down to switch the tape and realize I hadn’t plugged the microphone in all the way. So I had 45-minutes of dead air and Lucas thought that was very funny…I’m sure things like that have happened to him.

There’s the old story about [Cecil B.] DeMille as he is setting up the Israelites making their exit from Thebes [see The Ten Commandments] and he has this two-mile long set and thousands of extras and [Charlton] Heston and everybody else and he yells, ‘Action,’ and it’s a total disaster.

Camera one fails and camera two fails and he desperately turns to camera three, ‘Did you get the shot?’ he yells. ‘Ready when you are, Mr. DeMille!’ They never heard him say, ‘Action.’ The radio had failed. So, you know, what can go wrong will.

Claremont's Star Wars #53 started as a John Carter story.
Claremont’s Star Wars #53 started as a John Carter story.

Speaking along those lines and speaking of George Lucas; there are those infamous two issues of Marvel’s Star Wars series that you wrote [Star Wars #53 – 54], where the art was originally created for the John Carter, Warlord of Mars series. Can you speak to that…?

Oh, sure, Carmine [Infantino] did the art that was actually for a John Carter Annual, and it was all about NASA’s first Mars expedition. Something goes wrong and the astronaut finds herself landing on Barsoom. And one thing leads to another and at the end of the issue she has become the latest [Earth person on Mars], along with Ulysses Paxton, who got blown up in World War I.

If you get to the later end of the [Burroughs] Mars books, there are a couple of additional terrans who have made the transition [to Mars]; moving up in time as John Greystoke [Tarzan] did. He first starts out in the 1880s and I think the last Tarzan book by Burroughs was [set] in World War II.

Then Marvel lost the [John Carter] license, so we had 30 pages of art and what the Hell could we do with it? So we just turned it into Star Wars and Walter Simonson finished the last 12 pages.

Simonson infamously changed the Tharks into giant Stormtroopers. Was it hard for you to transition your John Carter story into Star Wars?

Not that terrifically hard and fortunately I got paid for the rewrite, which I thought was very amusing. It was interesting watching my astronaut transmogrify into Princess Leia, sitting on a starship thinking about Luke. It was like, ‘Where did that come from?’

And of course we had to re-scramble the whole subtext of the Annual’s story, because she was obviously going to meet a Barsoomian and shenanigans, both emotional and physical, were going to ensue, and we couldn’t do that with Leia – and of course they were a lot more respectfully dressed.

There are a lot of people, including myself, who see Princess Leia as George Lucas’ Dejah Thoris.

Well, that’s a George Lucas question, I’m afraid. Although I have to confess that I do like [Kylo] Ren in the new movie. It was a fine reboot, but I’ll be more intrigued to see what the second one looks like.

You could sort of see that in the first trilogy Episode IV was basically just a set-up. Here is everybody, here are the good guys, here are the bad guys, here are the robots, this is Tatooine, this is Luke, and you get to the end and you are left with a functional cliffhanger.

The second [film], The Empire Strikes Back, it where all gets serious. There you can see the influence of Leigh Brackett writing the premise and Lawrence Kasdan [writing] the screenplay, with an increasing complexity of relationships and the whole idea introduced of Luke being revealed as Darth’s son; and of course the loss of his hand at the end – it just gets better and better and better.

The third film…the Ewoks kind of messed it up. I think by then it was at the point where the marketing of it had become so monumental. And with the marketing you also had to include the fact that, for at least the first arc of Star Wars, the symbiotic relationship between Lucasfilm, Fox and Marvel.

“Marvel was functioning as a perpetual ad campaign. There would be a Star Wars comic every month, which would hopefully get everybody excited about going to see the next movie, and then the movie would come out and then we’d be excited about the next movie.”

Marvel was functioning as a perpetual ad campaign. There would be a Star Wars comic every month, which would hopefully get everybody excited about going to see the next movie, and then the movie would come out and then we’d be excited about the next movie. That had never really been tried before and the effect, I think, in 1980’s terms of dollars, was probably as impressive as the box office was for the film today.

How do you feel about all those old Marvel Star Wars stories now being discounted as unofficial canon?

You know, you can make the same argument about the X-canon or the Fantastic Four, because of the relationship with Fox, and the lack of a relationship between Fox and Disney. From a promotional/publishing perspective, the Fantastic Four no longer exists. The X-Men would no longer exist if it weren’t for the fact that it’s still a successful publishing enterprise. You have to figure out how things balance.

I mean, when you look at four or five years ago, looking at trailers, in the fall, and ‘Holy crap, John Carter looks really cool! Dominic West is going to be a great bad guy! Oh, I love the ships! Ok…Dejah Thoris is overdressed, but what the Hell – it’s a movie.’ And then the movie came out and it was like, ‘Ohhh…two-hundred and fifty million dollars…?’

Well, I have to disagree on that. I loved the movie and I think the reason it wasn’t more successful is Disney’s hellacious marketing of it.

Oh no, it was the movie. I tend to look at things from a different perspective. My problem with it was you had this really nice opening, then, killing off Bryan Cranston, tsk-tsk-tsk, shameful. The opening scenes on Barsoom were very cool; as a matter of fact the first half-hour was very cool with the whole exploration of the Tharks. But the problem is you had a perfect triangle between Dominic West’s bad guy, Dejah Thoris and John Carter. You didn’t need the Therns, and it was sort of like, ‘who is the villain?’

Once you say to the audience, ‘Dominic West is a flunky;’ then you are left sitting there thinking, why are we wasting time with him? Why are you showing me Dominic West when we should be looking at Mark Strong as the real villain? And then what does he do, he just stands around. I’m mean, come on, this is a serious guy who can kick the sh!t out of people and all he’s doing is standing there shape-shifting and leading John Carter and everyone else around by their noses. So it dilutes the focus of the film.

Lynn Collins as Dejah Thoris in John Carter (2012)
Lynn Collins as Dejah Thoris in John Carter (2012)

For me the whole thing should have been establishing Barsoom, having the viewer fall in love with the main characters and through the main characters with the planet. They should have made the conflict between John Carter and Dominic west primal in the sense that Dominic West is so cool that Dejah Thoris is like, ‘I’m Dejah Thoris, science-whiz, but he’s a hottie,’ and she can’t help looking in that direction. Then there’s John Carter who is stalwart and proud and cool and…weird, and she’s in love him…but she can’t help looking at that hottie.

So there should have been a real conflict between John Carter and West, and Dejah Thoris and John Carter and West. They all have to make choices and maybe there’s a point where Dominic West is giving us a sense of, ‘perhaps I won’t be a villain, perhaps I’ll be the savior of Barsoom – I just have to get rid of this other twerp!’

His goal is still the conquest of Helium, but leave the Therns out of it. We know he’s got a zap-gun, ok, but where did it come from? Then you can build up to the end and John and he are fighting, the betrayal, the fight, he defeats Dominic West.

In my mind, if I had done it, I would have made the fight a lot more James Bond-ish / Star Wars-ish, in the sense that it’s a real knock-down drag-out. You know, like Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone going at it hammer and tongs on the beach in Captain Blood kind of thing. And then at the last minute [West] is zapped and you say, ‘what the f— was that?’ There’s somebody else, but they don’t know who or what or why.

Then [John and Dejah] are married, everything is happy, and that’s when you reveal the bad guy on the next level. For me, the way I would have ended it, [the villain] would have come up and slammed him, ‘Goodbye John Carter, mwwah, haha,’ and as Carter phases out you see the Thern turn into John Carter, and you think, ‘Oh, jeez, he’s just going to walk in and take his place – and have all the fun with Dejah Thoris,’ [snaps fingers] and that’s where you end the film. To be continued…

The trouble is by throwing in that epilogue where he’s running around the Earth finding all the bits, spending twenty-years before he gets back to Mars to see his son, Carthoris. It’s like, okay, why do I need to come back for a sequel; I know how this is going to turn out. To me it should be more like, Holy Sh!t, what happens now!?!

I look it at it from a much more fundamental melodramatic comic book aspect, but the first rule when you’re writing a story is when you get to the bottom of each page you gotta turn to the next page; and when you get to the end of page-22 you’re like, ‘Holy Sh!t, how long? I’ve gotta wait four-weeks for the next one? Screw this, I want it now!’

If you are going to make people spend two-hours of their lives, sitting there watching adventures, when you have the technology to bring this world to life…I mean, imagine what they could have done with the second one…

“…the first rule when you’re writing a story is when you get to the bottom of each page you gotta turn to the next page…”

He finds his way back, but how many years have passed? Is Helium even Helium anymore? Well, oddly enough, the only place he can take refuge turns out to be with the Tharks, because evil John Carter has tried to wipe them out – so the relationships are even worse and he has got to find Tars Tarkas and win back his trust. And it turns out Tars knew there was an imposter. [In a Thark voice] ‘I sensed it was not you, John Carter. You have a way about you and that guy didn’t.’

From that point you had a rationale for him to go find out who the Therns are, what are the white Martians, is there another country of red Martians on Mars that he can find an allegiance with to overthrow the evil guy running Helium?

It’s melodrama, but it’s fun, and to me the goal is that if you are going to do a story like John Carter or like Star Wars the last scene has got to be leaving the reader or the viewer desperate to know what’s coming next. Everyone is going to come back in two years because what the Hell is Luke going to say to her? Is he her Dad? Not, ‘Hi, you don’t know me, but…’ Yeah, yeah, yeah…I saw that film.

Well, that’s definitely the way you approached your Marvel John Carter stories and it’s what Edgar Rice Burroughs was so good at doing in his books.

Yeah, it goes back farther than that. It’s what Dickens did, you know, you write five to ten-thousand words a week, and you want the reader to come back next week, and next week and the next week. It was all published as serialized short stories and then bound into novels, because that was how you raised the money and the popular interest to get the audience impassioned. That’s the key to any good TV series. You create characters that the audience will bond with and then you can play with anything.

One of the series I like very much is Elementary; primarily because of the relationship between Holmes and Watson, Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu. Because it’s a male/female relationship now, that’s a whole different level of tension to the Holmes/Watson relationship. Which might have been implicit subtext in the original stories or in the spin-off stories, but now it’s a little more open, and because it’s open you can go in so many different directions. I mean, I think they’ve just given Holmes a potential girlfriend – and Irene Adler is still in prison, so God knows what she’ll do…

You can do the same thing with everybody in comics. What’s going to happen with Jean and Scott, or Jean and Logan, or Logan and Kitty, or Kitty and Rachel, or Rachel and Jean? And that’s just the gal’s side of things…you know, throw in the guys…

“The thing with Burroughs is that he created such a great playground…”

The thing with Burroughs is that he created such a great playground and the amusing part of it is that Dejah Thoris is actually two-steps down the royal ladder. There’s Mors Kajak and Tardos Mors; so Tardos Mors is the Jeddak of Helium, but Mors Kajak, Dejah Thoris’s father, is the Jed of lesser Helium. So, again, there’s a lot to play with there…

We know things about Mars that Burroughs couldn’t know. So, in my year on the [John Carter] book, the arc I was playing with was The Master Assassin, which all took place in the rift valley. Why the rift valley? Because it’s the deepest valley in the visible solar system – from our perspective. It’s a couple of miles deeper than any surface equivalent on Earth. If Barsoom had oceans it would be the equivalent of the Mariana Trench, but it doesn’t so it’s just this huge valley leading up to Olympus Mons, which they didn’t know about a 140- years ago.

So I could play with that and have Dejah Thoris and John Carter coming to a part of Barsoom that had never been seen, and by me inventing silly stuff to go with Burroughs silly stuff I figured, what the Hell, it’s a lighter gravity [on Mars], but at the bottom of the valley the air is a little more dense, so [the valley Martians] have wings and can fly. Wouldn’t that be fun?

It was Marvel’s John Carter, Warlord of Mars comics that first turned me and many others on to Burroughs’ Mars books; and I believe that John Carter’s director, Andrew Stanton, was first introduced to the character by the Marvel books as well.

Ahhh…they never call, they never write…they try to do it themselves.

READ: Chris Claremont Interview (Part II) – X-Men v Superman v Batman v Deadpool v John Carter v The Martian
READ: Chris Claremont Interview (Part III) – On Burroughs, Bigelow, Idris Elba, Iron Fist and Inhumans

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