‘X-Men: Gold’ celebrates 50 years of Marvel mutants

(CBR) The X-Men are one of Marvel Comics’ most popular franchises, making it no surprise that the publisher has been celebrating their 50th anniversary in 2013. There was a time, however, when that milestone was far from guaranteed. In the late 1960s sales were poor on “X-Men,” even leading to issues #67-93 being published without containing original stories.

In 1975, everything began to turn around. First in “Giant-Size X-Men” #1 writer Len Wein and artist Dave Cockrum reinvigorated the franchise with an all-new team of characters. Then writer Chris Claremont began his record 16-year run on the X-Men franchise with that year’s “Uncanny X-Men” #94. He would of course go on to make many of those new characters icons and take the series to new heights.

Claremont’s contributions are a large part of the reason the X-Men are celebrating their 50th anniversary, and in honor of that milestone the writer has a brand new story in “X-Men: Gold,” a one-shot anthology released last week that celebrates the history of Marvel’s Merry Mutants. CBR News spoke with Claremont about his latest X-Men story and his time on the X-Books.

CBR News: Chris, the X-Men celebrate their 50th anniversary this year, and are currently one of Marvel Comics’ most popular franchises, but that wasn’t always the case. What was it like taking over the title back in 1974 when you began your run on the series? How did that assignment come about for you?

Chris Claremont: It came about because of Len Wein’s unexpected departure from the book. He and [artist] Dave Cockrum had regenerated it with Roy Thomas, and then Len became Editor-in-Chief. He then decided to go freelance and become a full-time writer and with the amount of time he had something had to go. I guess “X-Men” was the most acceptable sacrifice. He wanted to keep the four monthlies he was doing.

So he knew I was ferociously interested in the book, probably because they couldn’t keep me out of the office when him and Dave were plotting. So he asked if I was interested and I said yes.

What was it like taking over the book back then?

In terms of producing the initial issues, #94 and #95, they had to be restructured out of their original story shape. Originally “X-Men” was intended as a giant sized quarterly. So it would be 36 pages every three months. Then it was decided by the powers that be that the giant sized quarterlies weren’t working, or at least they didn’t want to do an original series in that format.

So it became a bi-monthly title, which meant that the first issue had already come out and the second issue I believe was the X-Men up against Count Nefaria. It was going to culminate with the death of Thunderbird. The rationale for that was Len’s feeling that if you’re going to do a dramatic event like that you either do it right off the bat and catch everyone hopefully off guard. Or you build up to it and catch everyone by surprise.

Since it was a brand new team of X-Men and a quarterly book Len felt that if he took the latter course it would just be forever to get the characters to the point where the death would have any sort of emotional power. So his instinct was to do it right off the bat in the second of the giant sizes, which would have been “Giant Size X-Men” #3 I guess? Or #2 depending on how you look at it. So when we split that issue in half the other problem was we had to restructure what would have been a self contained single-issue story into a two-parter.

The first half, which had been plotted and was substantially drawn was more Len’s than mine. Because I ended up doing most of the touch up work, the second half which was issue #95, was more mine than Len’s. So we went with the scenario that Len had structured out where the second part culminated with the death of Thunderbird.

So with the first part being mostly Len’s, did that give you a chance to sort of wade out into the deep end?

Issue #96 was a fill-in because I needed time to think up stories and Dave needed time to draw them. So we had a fill-in that had been commissioned right off the bat.

Bill Mantlo was doing fill-ins for just about everybody at that time and what ended up happening was that I rewrote it because the material that he was writing was out of date by that point. Then with issue #97 Dave and I got back on track and I believe that’s where we had Ororo’s first encounter with the N’Gari. So #97 is where we set everything up and then we really got everything rolling in #98, the Christmas issue. That lead to the confrontation on the S.H.I.E.L.D. space station. Then we had the 100th issue.

You were on “Uncanny X-Men” for 16 years and you had lengthy runs on several other X-related titles as well. That’s an astounding feat, especially by today’s standards. What kept the characters and the world so interesting to you for so long?

They were cool characters. My expectation from the beginning was that I’d stick around as long as it was fun and as long as I had stories to tell. The interesting side of it occurred as time went on. The more I got to know the characters, the more interested I became in their lives, and the more the twists and turns jumped up out of left field. It was like getting to know people over the course of time. The more I got to know them the more I liked them. The more I liked them the more I wanted to tell stories with them. It just never stopped being fun.

Part of that fun was the opportunity to work with an extraordinary sequence of artists who could bring it all to life. If you go back and look at the first 75 issues of “Uncanny X-Men” what you have is Dave’s run, which leads into John [Byrne]’s run, which leads back into Dave’s second run, which leads into [Paul Smith] Smitty’s run.

So you have a remarkable coherence of visual vision in terms of the artist, but you also had the opportunity of the creator Dave Cockrum coming back after a four-year absence to reexamine and flesh out the characters that he initially created and move them down the line.

Then when Smitty came aboard in the middle of the Brood Saga it was almost a culmination of what John, Dave, and I had set up. Quite frankly, I think if we could have persuaded Paul Smith to stay on the book for another year the sales would have been breathtaking. They were impressive, but we were on such an effervescent and exciting role in terms of how you present the characters.

We bounced from the Brood saga to dealing with Charlie turning into a Brood, the fight with Callista and the Morlocks, the Japan story coming off of the “Wolverine” miniseries, and then everything culminates with the return of Dark Phoenix. We had this never ending rhythm of “Can you top this?”

With Dave on his first run we were literally opening up issue #97 and asking what do we do? How about Charlie has a nightmare? Let’s do an interstellar battle. Let’s show George Lucas how they should look! Next thing you know, Dave does a double-page spread of alien star ships fighting around a binary star and he bases the designs of the starships on bugs. Visually no one had ever done that before and it looked brilliant! ?

We had Lilandra! We had the original X-Men versus the new X-Men. We had Jean’s transformation into Phoenix. Then just when you thought, “Oh my gosh, what are they going to come up with next?” we have Leprechauns on a trip home to Ireland. Then in case you think we’re being a little too silly, we resurrect Magneto and set the stage for the next 60 issues worth of stories.

So in a sense Dave and I were making things up as went, but we had a plan — we just didn’t realize it until we got there. Each seed we planted sprouted wonderfully. That sort of set the stage for John coming in with #108.

It’s interesting artists always seem to leave in the middle of sagas. John completed the last issue of the Phoenix Saga. Smitty did the last issue of the Brood Saga. There was almost a connective bond between one story and the next one in terms of the artists that I think served the book very well.

Your extended run on the X-Books ended in 1991, but since then you’ve come back to the franchise several times. How does it feel to come back now for a book celebrating the X-Men’s 50th anniversary? And how does it feel to have a franchise you added so much to celebrating such a milestone?

I don’t think any of us thought that would happen back when we started. We didn’t know if the industry was going to be around in 20 or even 10 years. The comic book world from 1976-1980 was totally different.

Then when I came back in 1998 it wasn’t to write the X-Men. I was Senior Vice President and Editorial Director. So I was management and I didn’t want to go anywhere near the X-Men because I had been away from the franchise for a few years and other writers had taken “X-Men,” “New Mutants,” and “Excalibur” in vastly different directions.

I had no problem other than pure jealousy with what Weezie [Lousie Simonson] had done on “New Mutants” or what Larry [Hama] had done on “Wolverine.” When it came down to X-Men though it was totally different. I didn’t want to go there because there was too much history. So when I asked for writing assignments I was happy as a clam to do the “Fantastic Four.” I wanted to set up a run as hopefully as iconic and long lasting as my run on the X-Men or Stan’s run on the FF. That was my challenge. It was something new and cool and I was working with Salva [Salvador Larroca] which was absolutely wonderful.

Things didn’t work out the way I hoped I guess because Marvel found itself in what you could call a considerable ongoing evolution in terms of ownership. This is when Revlon owner Ron Perelman owned the company, and those were the guys I was working for when I came back. Then after the bankruptcy disaster leading through the turn of the century Ike Perlmutter ended up owning the company.

He had a different vision and this is where Joe [Quesada] came in as Editor-in-Chief and I was not only the old X-Men writer I was management. He wanted the X-Men to go in a different direction. I believe that was the time they started “New X-Men.” That was a perfectly legitimate command decision to me. That’s what it’s all about. I may have disagreed with the implications of what they were doing, but at that point, I was one of the grunts again so it didn’t matter.

Then when I came back to the X-Men related books for the next bunch of years, first with “X-Treme X-Men” and then back to “Uncanny,” I was in and out and on and off for about the next 10 years. Now it’s pretty much done except for this story in “X-Men: Gold.”

I imagine it was fun and kind of nice then to get a call from X-Office editor Nick Lowe asking you to contribute to the 50th Anniversary book.

It was flattering and gave me the opportunity to tell a story that hadn’t been told. I’ll be interested to see what other creators are in the book.

I understand your story in “X-Men: Gold” flashes back to an earlier era of the X-Men and involves Cyclops, Wolverine, Nightcrawler, Colossus and Kitty Pryde. Is that correct?

The story is set knee deep in continuity. It picks up about 36 hours after the conclusion of “Uncanny X-Men” #173. So they’re in Japan for Wolverine’s wedding. Everything has crashed and burned and they’re getting ready to go home. They just have to get their plane and while they’re waiting something happens. In a way it’s a story that coincidentally bridges the gap between the Wolverine arc with Mariko and the return of the X-Men’s most iconic, non-organic adversaries, the Sentinels. It also involves the creation of a whole new breed of Sentinels. The story is set in China.

The other thing is because it’s also set in continuity you have Scott [Summers AKA Cyclops] dealing with his relationship with Madelyne [Pryor]. At this point he’s building up to asking her to marry him. You have the presence of the Starjammers, their ship and all those characters. Charlie and Lilandra are there as well. So you could look on the issue as #173.5

Sounds like the recipe for a fun story.

I got to get back into the classic tone of the book and the classic continuity to put it in pretentious phrases. [Laughs] It’s like putting on an old jacket and discovering it fits perfectly and I have to say Bob McLeod did a wonderful job on the art. He did pencils and inks.

What was it like reuniting with Bob?

Bob and I created the “New Mutants” and he did most of the first year of that series as penciler and inker, or penciler, or inker. He then came back a number of times. We’ve done Annuals together and we’ve done X-Men stuff together. Bob and I go way back.

I hope everyone likes the story in “X-Men: Gold.” I look at the project much the same way any other reader would. I know I have a story in it and Stan Lee has a story in it, but that’s about it. So it is as much as a surprise and a delight to me, and being a moderately huge egotist I hope there are hardcovers, and giant bookend editions the size of Bugattis. [Laughs] Like the “Wolverine: The Adamantium Collection” book. What do you do for the shortest guy on the team? Make a book bigger than he is!

If you carry one of those in each hand you don’t have to lift weights any more. That’s an impressive package and my hope as a creator and a reader is that “X-Men: Gold” is fortunate enough to get the same consideration some day.

Finally, are you currently working on any comics or prose projects that fans of your work should keep an eye out for?

I’m available to do more X-Men stories if Marvel would like to tap me for some, but currently I’m working on my own prose projects. The difference between prose and comics is comics is all fourth gear pedal to the metal. Prose ends up being a lot more restrained both in terms of production and finding a home for the concept when it’s done. So things are in progress, but beyond that we’ll have to wait and see.

“X-Men: Gold” is on sale now.