Nerd Culture

Chris Claremont on X-Men: Days of Future Past and Kickstarting the Superhero Movie Trend

Chris Claremont has a yen for spinning epic yarns, either in comic book form or when talking with fans. And both can be equally astounding. His contributions as a writer for Marvel Comics are the stuff of legend, specifically to the X-Men canon. And the tales he imparts in interviews and at conventions, like the recent Phoenix Comicon, are larger than life, dynamic, and filled with action, drama, and humor.

Claremont may not have invented the X-Men (that was Stan Lee's doing) or its most iconic character Wolverine (credit: Len Wein and Roy Thomas), but he did help give Marvel's fabled mutants more depth, grandeur, gravitas, and — most importantly — a second lease on life after re-igniting interest in anything X-related after a rather fallow period in the early '70s when cancellation loomed.

He not only changed the face of the X-Men, but also Marvel Comics itself, fueling the rabid popularity of Wolverine, creating and expanding characters' backstories, and adding a certain emotional weight to the dealings of mutant-kind.

And a slew of some of X-Men's more kick-ass mutants were the brain-children of the British-born writer, some male (Gambit, Sabretooth) but mostly female (Rogue, Mystique, Rachel Summers, Kitty Pryde, Emma Frost).

Along with Marvel artist John Byrne, Claremont conjured such famous and popular arcs as "The Dark Phoenix Saga" (where Jean Grey attains the absolute zenith of her mutant powers and puts the entire galaxy on blast) and "Days of Future Past," the latter of which you may have seen in cinematic form at your neighborhood multiplex.

It's not the only Claremont creation to be translated into an X-Men film. "God Loves, Man Kills" became the basis X2: X-Men United, his 1982 collaboration with Frank Miller on the Wolverine spinoff became, um, The Wolverine, and various and sundry other plot and character tidbits hewn from his stories grafted into X-Men: First Class. (We're pretending X-Men: The Last Stand doesn't exist for the sake of argument. Besides, it may have been completely nullified by Days of Future Past.)

Not only did he provide the wellspring for many an X-Men movie, according to Claremont, he might be responsible for the entire comic book/superhero film trend of the last decade and a half.

In short, he played a key role in getting 20th Century Fox to make the original X-Men film when the studio's interest was lagging. And Claremont sparked their interest much like he got geeks into the X-Men comic book 20 years before that: by underscoring that their mutations made them analogues for minorities, the mistreated, or the marginalized members of society and not just two-dimensional superheroes in spandex.

It worked, and the rest is history.

We got a chance to speak with Claremont at length during his recent visit to the Valley, and he had plenty to say. Not only did the 63-year-old scribe dish on behinds-the-scenes info on Days of Future Past, he also shared his feelings on the state of comics, the relationships between the big two (Marvel and DC) and the multinational corporations that own both companies, his recent work on the new Nightcrawler title, and how mutants represents the "others" of society.

If that weren't enough, he also commented on the campaign ads of current Arizona gubernatorial candidate Doug Ducey. No, really.

As with most geeky discussions, spoilers both major and minor abound, so consider yourself warned.

You've been credited with helping save the X-Men franchise back in the '70s with Len Wein and others at Marvel. How does that feel? Well, that and $2.50 will get me a subway token. On one level it feels great. On the other, it feels frustrating because I'm functionally on the sidelines watching other people having fun with the characters and circumstances that I set in motion. So it's the disadvantage of being 60 in a world that is much more oriented towards 20-year-olds.

And the other frustration, practically speaking, when one is dealing [with] editors, the way that editors make their bones is by finding the next young, hot talent. The next Brian Bendis or the next Matthew Vaughn if you're looking at film. And shepherding him or her to triumph. And it's no fun [for] a young, ambitious editor to be teamed up with an old fart who is writing these characters and defining the series before you were even born. Because, as editor, you have your own set of ideas, but you're dealing with someone who has their own set of ideas who might be persnickety about yielding. It's the foundation of a possible conflict, which neither editors, nor writers, nor artists like, so you find a way around it.

You've been working for Marvel on the new Nightcrawler series. Did they bring you back into the fold? They called me and said, "Do you want to write Nightcrawler?" and I said, "Yeah." On one level, it's a no-brainer; I'm under contract, so when they call, I go. But it's a lot of fun. It's just that the reality requires that the two creative sides work together. And anytime that happens, there's always and integral level of friction and frustration because different creative minds have different approaches, different visions, different forms of telling stories. As with any creative reality, you have to find a balance.

So that, in turn, becomes the foundation for more interesting stories. Because, the trick is, when you're writing, you have to be able to be able to steal from everyone.

Sort of like that old quote attributed to Pablo Picasso: "Good artists copy, great artists steal?" I would almost say, "Create the great, steal from the good." You don't want to be a schlub. One doesn't consider oneself to be a pudknucker. But you're grabbing bits and pieces of everything you see done in the world around you. The question is, how artfully can you mix it all together, and, oh, come up with, to be a selfish person about it, a Days of Future Past instead of Pacific Rim?

So did you tap into notable source material for any of your legendary comic book arcs, such as the hero's journey or classic mythology? No. I mean, other than in the sense that I've read those types of works. But its not a question of sitting down, reading a specific text, and deciding to steal from it, or at least be inspired by it.

I have a dear friend who's a Pulitzer Prize-winning endocrinologist. She's a journalist who's a specialist in infectious diseases. Back in the day, at any given time she was off in Zaire looking for the Ebola virus or addressing some think-tank in Washington. She's the only person in my circle of acquaintances who's been on a first-name basis with at least two presidents and one vice president. I'm sorry, I'm a geek, that's cool to have Bill Clinton on speed dial and have him answer. That's fun.

So the trick is to find something, a moment from her life that's got me saying, "Oh, this is cool," and filter it into what I'm writing, but in a way that makes it faithful to, obviously, writing about infectious disease, but a cool story that is unique and independent on its own. You just don't steal chunks of lives and throw them in, because that's ultimately boring.

Well, one could find shades of classic tales in some of your works. Like, a parallel between A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court and Days of Future Past. Yeah, in a way. But hopefully with distance enough and invention enough that you can look on it as, yes, they're similar, but its a fresh spin on a classic trope. The counter-argument is, all we're doing is recycling the same 10 stories that we're dealt with in The Iliad. Between the 21 plays, Shakespeare dealt with it all, so we're just ripping him off. Well, you know, okay, but hopefully its in a way that makes a fresh and exciting and enticing to the current audience.

Do you have any grand story arcs saved up that you'd love to create, with the X-Men or otherwise? Not that I'd admit in public.

Which means you've got some, you're just hesitant to share. I'm a working writer, I'll always have tons of stories. I have characters galore. My problem is, certainly from an X-Men perspective, is that there's no creating, I suspect, anything new in terms of characters and events in the X-canon because that's just food for [20th Century] Fox. And that's a primal reality now.

Meaning, characters for a potential X-Men movie? I mean, anything that I create for the X-Men becomes a Fox-licensed property. Because Marvel can't use it, they're in the X-Men. And Fox has licensed the X-Men. The only possible way out of that would be if it was a character that originated elsewhere, which, if they get away with it, could be amusing.

What do you mean? There are a lot of characters like Mystique, like Rogue, that came from outside the X-canon. Rogue was created in The Avengers Annual by me and Michael Golden; Mystique was created in Ms. Marvel, she just ended up in the X-Men. So it would be an interesting challenge, actually quite an interesting challenge. I mean, imagine one day if Disney legal walked over to Fox and said, you no longer have the rights to Mystique. She wasn't an X-Men character to begin with.

And imagine Kevin [Feige] getting his hands on a character with the possibility perhaps to cast Jennifer Lawrence in a role.

Do you think there will ever by the ultimate Marvel crossover movie? Or is that unrealistic, given the different companies licensing Marvel properties? You know, I have no idea.

It would make a bazillion dollars. Guaranteed. Anything is possible. But you're dealing with very proud and very successful and very powerful men, whose perception of how all this stuff fits together is way different from ours. Here's a case in point from back in the '90s. Remember "The Death of Superman" at all?

Of course. One of the biggest arcs in comics history across multiple books. Yep, yep, yep. So DC announces "The Death of Superman." It makes global headlines. [Former DC editor-in-chief] Jenette Kahn is over in London for a convention. And she's driving to dinner with a bunch of DC people. Her phone rings. It's Steve Ross. Now, aside from bring chairman of the board of Time-Warner, oh yes, he's dying of cancer. So here he is, calling Jenette. And basically the line was, "What the fuck do you think you're doing?"

And, as the story goes, Jenette just turned white listening to her phone, pulled over the car, had everyone else get taxis, and went back to her hotel. And she was saying, "It's a comic book story. We do it all the time. It's not like he's 'dead' dead. We're gonna bring him back." Which is exactly how it is in comics. And Ross was telling her, "You don't understand, he is a corporate icon. He is, in many respects, a face of Time-Warner. You do not fuck around with that without letting everyone know, up to and especially including me. Even if I'm dying. You do not live in a vacuum. You live in a real world. You want to play with the big boys? I'm the big boy."

And that was the introduction to the new reality of the relationships. The profits that comics generate as comics is minimal. But the profits they have generating in terms of spin-offs, in terms of TV and film are a whole other chapter entirely. And when you play with that kind of force, you don't fuck around. And it's much the same with Marvel and the X-books and the fan community.

It's all a part of corporate machines like Disney or Fox. The fundamental reality is, in the global scheme of things, who gives a fuck about Bryan Singer or me? The point is, how if at all possible to get the X-Men back into the Marvel fold, so then Kevin [Feige] can sit down and figure out a scenario whereby in five years you can relaunch the whole kit and kaboodle and do it even better.

The flipside of the coin, of course, is that under the present reality, Bryan has got a pretty cool ball I think. In terms of the seven X-films, his are the tentpoles. Now he's moving onto Apocalypse. It could very well be that he could be the defining director-producer, the X-Men's George Lucas.

What do you want out of a good comic book movie? As a comic book writer or just a fan of 'em? Same thing I'd want out of a good novel or a good movie or a good play or a good anything: value for the time, value for the cost of buying the book. When I was 16, before I got to the point that the way she looked was way beyond compare, I picked up a copy of [Fantastic Four #48] and on the cover was The Watcher. And I thought, "Holy shit." I mean, this is Stan [Lee] and Jack [Kirby] at their peak. They were coming up with new ideas and presenting it in a way that just made you think, "This is cool."

And I read the book and I thought, "What the hell happens next?" Well, next issue, Galactus shows up. Holy shit! And next issue [after that], they beat him, and that wasn't even the end of the issue, that was 12 pages in and then Johnny Storm goes off to his first day of college. I mean, could you imagine in a modern book closing out the battle between the heroes and Galactus the first time? The battle between the heroes and ultimate super-villain two-thirds of the way through the book, and the last third is pure character about one of the guys leaving home and going off to college? I mean, that would be laughed out the door.

Probably so. But I read this and I thought, "Holy shit, this is fun!" And it was only 12 cents. And that led me to Thor, which was even more fun, in its own way. And that led me to Roy [Thomas] and John Buscema on The Avengers. And as the saying goes, I was hooked.

But the whole approach to telling comics in those days was fundamentally different than it is now. Now it's all, five issues, trade [paperback]. Five, maybe six, issues, trade. One is always looking, it seems, at the process in terms of the aftermarket income for the company or for yourself or whatever. And no one has any expectation of lasting more than five issues or six issues. So you do these big events.

It's a change from the old days, I imagine. Back when I started, the key was to get on, say your piece, and then get off. If you have a hit, brilliant. The audience is left going, "Eh! What the hell happens next? I gotta find the next issue!" And if you have a dud? Hopefully you've moved on to the next story and they've forgotten, or they will forget. And if you have a dud too many times, you're off the book and you start again.

I mean, Days of Future Past was 34 pages, start to finish, over two issues. End of story. It doesn't need any more than that. Yeah, we could put in a ton of stuff, but, basically, you don't need it. It's there, it's all there in John [Byrne's] visual storytelling and in the dialogue, hopefully. That's what a comic should be: you hit 'em hard and you leave the audience wanting more. Especially now that you got books that range from $3 to $7. The feeling is, we have to give them an epic, because otherwise they'll think, "Oh, I've wasted my time and my money." But six issues at five bucks a head? That's 30 bucks. That's serious money.

So, for me, the key should be, you grab 'em with page one and you keep 'em pretty much on the edge of their seat, either through a felicitous exhibition of character (i.e. "Oh, this guy's cool! What's next?") or slap-dash-kick-'em-in-the-ass action that get 'em saying, "Woah! I never saw that one coming!" The punchline is... have you seen Red 2?

Not yet. Well, there's an ongoing [bit] that goes back and forth where Character A says to Character B, "I bet you never saw that coming?" And the joke is, "Duh! We've been waiting for that." And that's how it should be. In reality, it's like, "Holy crap," I never saw that coming! You killed Jean Grey! Shit!"

It's funny you should say that, since I'd have to say that about X2. I had no idea they were going to kill off Jean? Neither did anyone else. If you read my [X2] novelization, Jean is alive and kicking at the end, because the book was already at the printer when Bryan went back up to Canada for re-shoots. And he did that six weeks before release, because they decided, "Screw it, the redhead dies." And, as a storytelling punchline, it totally works. Because you see and kinda go, "Oh my god, Jean's dead and Scott's totally gobsmacked now."

Is it because the climax feels like comes after they shut down Dark Cerebro? It's not the climax, though. Well you get to the end though and they've won, they've won across the board, top to bottom, Magneto, Charlie [a.k.a. Charles Xavier], it's all done. They have their moment of salvation. And then all of a sudden, the shit hits the fan, like with the death of Jean in ["The Dark Phoenix Saga"] comic. The X-Men are fighting on the moon and they defeat Dark Phoenix. They've got their victory and then suddenly the Shi'ar show up.

And you go through the battle and you know they've got to find a way to win, they gotta find a way to win, because they're the heroes. They do that. Lilandra will see the light. And we get right to the end, and with the rewrite, which was one of the smartest moves that Jim [Shooter] ever made as editor-in-chief [of Marvel]. He had the right instincts and John and I were too close to it and too used to thinking in traditional Marvel terms.John did a beautiful ending where they pull the Phoenix Force out of there and [Jean's] back to normal — "Hi, Scott, I'm mindless but I'm yours" — and the Shi'ar let them go. And in the back of our minds, we all know this is bullshit. In a year and a half, the Phoenix is going to come back. But that was our way out.

But Jim Shooter changed the ending? Jim turned around and said, "She killed six billion people, there's got to be a reckoning." And it worked. The disadvantage of comics is that there's never a lasting consequence...good, bad, or indifferent. Mephisto can neutralize marriages, redheads can come back from the dead, you name it. But the reality, unfortunately, in comics is that every character is a fungible asset. Therefore, every character must be available within the context.

This is why, when it happened back in the day, I went to Jim and said, "The way to do this, to preserve Scott as a character, as a decent human being, and to give you the font for even more interesting stories, is don't bring Jean back. Leave her as the one unbreakable moment. She's dead, but she has a sister." Luke, you have a sister. And bring her in. Therefore, Scott can live happily ever after with Madelyne [Pryor], raise his kids, be a hero, be the head of the school, yada yada yada.

But now you have Rachel and she's single. That gives Bobby and Hank and Warren, 

suddenly they're center stage and Scott is in the background, and they could be the romantic center in the comic. Instead, they wanted to go back to the way it was. And for me, the idea has always been, find a way to give the audience what they want without giving them what they want, and especially do so that provides us, the creators, with the opportunity to take the book in a different direction and come up with utterly new stories that no one ever saw coming.

I'm sure you've heard this question already, but I'm interested in hearing it for myself: What did you think of the movie version of X-Men: Days of Future Past? It was a lot of fun. I can't imagine how they're going to clean up Washington. But that explains why the Senators left town in the '70s after Magneto trashed their stadium. But it really explains why Pennsylvania Avenue is now closed to traffic behind the White House. "No, no, has nothing to do with the giant baseball stadium that surrounded the White House."

There were many changes made from your story due to dramatic or cinematic reasons. What was your take on 'em? Like it or not, the story is fundamentally John and mine's story. Is it Wolverine instead of Kitty? Yeah. Why? Well, duh. Hugh Jackman? Bigger box office. And more importantly, canonically speaking, oh yes, he exists in 1973. She doesn't, she hasn't been born yet. Okay, there you go.

As for having her be the instrument of the switch? Eh, it's no weirder than any of the other iterations of twists that I've done to her in the comics. In my heart of hearts, I would've liked for her to have a more active participation in the future. But that's why the first thing I said to Bryan was, "How are you going to do it in under six hours?" Two films: one for the past, one for the future, because the cool stuff in the future deserves equal time.

I was hoping to see more of the future, which was reportedly left on the cutting room floor. Well, I'd be curious to see if Bryan did a Lord of the Rings version with another 20 minutes of all the future stuff that got thrown out. I thought they hit the right tone with Logan walking into the mansion and Chuck going, "Ohhh, I do remember you! And I'm going to say to you what you said to me: fuck off!" Good for you, Charlie! And I liked the fact that they corrected...

Professor X's paralysis? Yes. Because my reaction to First Class, I remember telling [executive producer Lauren Shuler Donner that I wished they hadn't crippled Charlie at the end. Because, for me, it's like, Magneto pulls out the bullet, you've got Hank, you've got Charlie, they've got more brains than they know what to do with. Fixing his spine is the least of their problems.

But he was so eloquent, a physical force on his feet. Putting him in a wheelchair was, to me, a waste of character, a waste of the actor [James McAvoy]. And then, of course, in the next one, he's on his feet. And I thought, "Oh, good." Either great minds think alike or someone passed the note along and Bryan thought it was a good idea. And I'll happily take smug credit for something, whether its my fault or not.

I think, making him active, making him functional, made for a more interesting physical presentation. And it actually defined it in terms of a character wont in the past that validified all the stuff that was happening in the future. And it defined and strengthened the character of Young Charlie, which is what you need, because that's where we're going from here.

What about the substitution of Senator Kelley for Trask? I also thought Peter Dinklage as Bolivar Trask was way cool. As I said, I see couldn't how Bryan was going to do it in one film. Because there was so much there to play with. And a classic example of which was the scene where Stryker comes into Trask's work area where he plopping Mystique's blood and analyzing it. And he suddenly realizes, "I don't hate them, I'm fascinated by them, think of what we could do, how we could use their abilities to make the world better."

And someone goes, "Okay, he's not a stock villain." God, it would be fun to play for five minutes or 10 minutes, within the context of the film, with exploring that. See this is where you kinda wish Days of Future Past could've been done more from the perspective of Game of Thrones perhaps, as a six-part series on HBO. Because then you could [analyze] why does Trask do what he does? What is his relationship? His kids, his this, his that. The bits and pieces are all there.

And at the same time, they wrap up the reality of the first three films, quite sadly. I mean, I thought Halle [Berry's] death was a really well-done scene. She has her moment of triumph and then gets nailed in the back, but oddly enough, that's the comic [reference]. Okay, it was New York, not Outer Mongolia, but there you go.

But it closed out that era, completely. And the punchline of it, when Logan wakes up in the mansion and he and Charlie sit down to have their talk, and you think they're back to the present and everything's better, yada yada yada. Then, you cut down to Washington and they dredge up Logan's body and there's Stryker and you think, "Oh shit. Okay, he's going to end up back in the stupid canon, he's going to get the claws. Until, Stryker turns around and his eyes change and you suddenly realize...

It's Mystique. Yes. Now the stage is set. In the same way at the end of The Wolverine you had, my reaction was, Logan gets on the plane with Yukio and suddenly the whole third act, I couldn't care less. I wanna see what happens next with those two, because they are cool.

But the same thing happens here, you've set it up so Wolverine teams up with Jennifer Lawrence. Holy shit! That could be fun. But imagine, just for the heck of it, a Mystique film with her teamed up with Logan. Oddly enough, I wrote a story...

That would work great as an adaptation for that plot line? No, no, no. I did a 22-page What If? story, which is based on the premise that Charlie and Magneto didn't split up, they stayed together. So you cut to the present day, and Logan and Mystique have a passionate relationship, she's his partner. And they kick ass and take names all over the place. So...oh god, I can take credit for it. [Bryan Singer's] going to hate me for that. Hah!

But to me, that's okay. You've got a fresh start. You can do this in parallel with the First Class [story line] evolution. And you're no longer bound by the reality of we must conform to the reality that we saw in X-Men 1, 2, and 3, because that doesn't exist anymore. We can tweak it. Who knows where we go from there.

My reaction was, does this cancel X-Men 3 out of existence? Then awesome. Well, you notice, Kelsey Grammer is The Beast again as a teacher, though they never established that he was former Secretary of Mutant Affairs, but he could be. It was a hoot to see him, though.

That movie was the gift that kept on giving, either from your story or with Bryan Singer's direction. But that's it. The nice thing about it was it also had a very nice sense of humor.

Like the Quicksilver scene. That was the money shot, in every sense of the word. I mean, every critic has said, "That was the scene that made us all sit up and take notice." But that was good. Again, that's essence of comics. You read it and go, "Holy shit, that was good. What the hell happens next? I can't wait to see the next movie, I want to know now."

In reality, hopefully they've done that. Everyone's coming out of there, going "What happens next?" Well, it's Apocalypse. Okay. [Knocks on wood.] Not my department. He's Weezie's [a.k.a. Marvel scribe Louise Simonson]. And hopefully she'll get a nice cameo.

Were there any geek-out moments for you when seeing your story visualized onscreen?
I should've worked out a lot harder before going down for the shoot. "Oh, I look great." Then you see this giant double chin and it's, "Oh, geez." I thought I looked awful in X3.

With that hovering lawnmower. Yeah. And the fact that I'm the only bald guy on the committee [in Days of Future Past]? That was annoying. They let Len keep his beard. And they shaved mine off, which is weird. Up to that point I haven't shaved since 1974. I've cut it close but I've never taken it off. I went home, walked through the door, and, "Ack! Dad, what happened to you!?!" I was kidnapped by pirates, which, I have to say, in Quebec [Days of Future Past's shooting location], probably makes sense.

But it was fun. The most fun was [when] Len and I got to hang around the set for an extra day and watch Bryan working. Checking out actors that flew in for costume fittings. And he was shooting the Logan wake-up scene, for which my wife will never forgive me.

Because she wasn't there with you to see Hugh Jackman's, um... Yes. Well, the interesting thing was that it was a four-walled set, so we're watching on video and it was like, "Holy Toledo." [Jackman] knew exactly where the camera was, god bless him.

But, no, being there was the most fun I've had in a long time, just standing there and watching how this other life uncorks itself. I was passing through London [four] years ago when they were shooting First Class and I hung out on the set for a day and that was the same deal. Just looking at whole different set of craftsmen practicing their trade. And I'm sorry but it was like, "Oh Chris, meet our [visual effects guy] John Dykstra." Wow. "I loved Silent Running!" "Okay."

But, no, this is the thing about Bryan, damn him. He set up such a crew of top-notch people where you turn around and say, "Holy cats! I've been following you're work for a long time. You're cool." "No, no. This is your stuff. You're cool."

So a mutual appreciation society? Well, I'm sorry. The frustration, the worst frustration about going to a convention like [Phoenix Comicon] is sitting at my table knowing that over in movie star alley, Nathan Fillion is there or just this huge list of incredible people. I was at a convention in Australia once. "Chris, would you like to meet Carrie Fisher?" I'm thinking, "Don't be an asshole. Don't be an asshole." And I go, "Hi, pardon me, I'm an asshole." "Oh, yes," she says, "I've met many." "You were so cool on Broadway. Your play [Wishful Drinking] was such a stitch. You threw confetti on me and my wife," because we were in the second row, and it was just totally cool.

But I mean, wow, Carrie Fisher. So, deep inside, this presumably respectable exterior is a 13-year-old geek. That's why it would be fun to work on screenplays, because you get to meet all these people. But then, the first day of geeking out they probably...

Ban you from the set? Or throw a cream pie in my face.

Is the movie version of Days of Future Past the best adaptation of your work thus far? Well, it would've been nice to get credit.

You didn't get a "Story By" or "Adapted From" credit? Nope. Not me, not John [Byrne].

You appeared in the film, right? Oh yeah, I got an acting credit, as did Len [Wein]. But you could perhaps argue the same point for X2 or X3, since they were more compilations of five different stories, but this was John's and mine's title, John's and mine's story. It would have been nice.

Did you ask Bryan Singer for a writing credit? It was a hope against hope. I suspect the reality is, if you give someone credit, you have to pay them. And if they acknowledge that the work was written by somebody, that will create a whole new set of shenanigans. So it's not surprising, it's just sad. But no, I thought [Days of Future Past] was fine. I enjoyed it.

Did Bryan consult with you during the making of the movie, story-wise? At this point, he's been doing this long enough that he doesn't need to. I mean, I'm available. All the consulting I did was back in the beginning, getting the deal off the ground. The silly, cheap, solipsistic way of looking at it is, it's all my fault. [Laughs] Only because I was an executive back then, a [senior] vice president at Marvel. And the pitch with Fox [for the original X-Men film] was very close to turnaround because they couldn't find a plausible rationale for why this series, this group of characters would sell, that was any different from any other superhero franchise. There was nothing there that made it unique.

Wait, this was when? '98.

So you're referring to the original X-Men movie? Yes. And no one knew their potential. So I wrote a memo that went to Lauren [Shuler Donner], that went to Fox, and I basically said: "The problem with the X-Men is you never look at it as a superhero book. It's not. It never was. It was never intended by the creators (i.e., me) to be a superhero book. It is a book about people. It is a book about outsiders and renegades trying to find a way to fit. Trying to find a future for themselves. Trying to not be the ones sent to the gas chambers."

And following that ethic, a substantial reason why the book has been as powerful and as popular as it has been with women, with gays, with Mormons, with outsider groups across the board [is] because it speaks their language in the sense that, "We are good people. All we want is the same thing you guys want. Its our fault we different. Why can't you just accept this? Why do you have to fear us? Why do you have to hate us? What makes us so alien?"

So if your notes to Fox helped convince them to greenlight the first X-Men movie. And since it sparked the modern-day comic book movie trend. So therefore... So part of me wishes I would've kept my mouth shut.

In essence, though... It's all my fault. The modern comics as we know them? My fault. Direct market? My fault, because the X-Men helped make it successful.

...and you're ultimately responsible for all the recent comic book movies, good or bad. You know, talk about being in the shit. Or as they used to say back home, "in the shite." The rule of unintended consequences. You do what seems like the simplest thing, and the joke is, the relationships were perfectly fine until Marvel got bought. Marvel as an independent producer had perfectly happy relationship with us. It wasn't ideal, but it wasn't bad. But Marvel as a major partner in Disney is a whole different kettle of fish. But, you know, it's woulda, shoulda, coulda.

You've always seen mutants as the analogues for the marginalized, right? Yeah. Well they are. 

Comics have always been about the marginalized, the "others" of society, right? Ehhh...It's one thing whe

n you're the last survivor of a doomed alien race that crashes in Kansas. Or the orphaned billionaire's son who grows up to be a crime fighter. Or you're bitten by a radioactive spider. They're all unique and they're all, more or less, accidents.

The biggest challenge in Stan [Lee's] repertoire was Iron Man. Why? Because anyone could wear the armor. It could be Tony, it could be Pepper, it could be Rhodey — it often was Rhodey — and how would anybody know? So if anybody could wear the armor, anyone could be Iron Man, what makes Tony Stark special? Until a way was found to make Tony Stark unique with the armor. That was why it was a second-tier series, that was the biggest challenge it had. There was no one you could really care about. With Spidey, he was a fluke. Accidents happen, kid! Especially to punks in Queens.

Or skinny science geeks. But the X-Men were born different. Not only were they different from their parents, their kids will be different. They're game changers. And there's more than one of them. So that changes the game on a fundamental level. I suppose if one guy in all of Metropolis woke up one morning and said, "Holy cow! I don't like girls, I like guys," but he was it. No more, no less, no one else.

Okay, you can deal with that. But it they're two or three or five, suddenly it becomes it becomes a whole different dynamic, and suddenly you have the people that are different trying to fight for their place in society. And the vast majority of society not caring one way or the "other" that a vocal minority of the other end of the spectrum is saying, "No!"

And all I have to do to find modern examples of that is just scroll down Facebook, you know? It's like, how long did it take [Bowe Bergdahl] to go from "Rescued hero comes back from the Taliban" to "He was really a traitor, you know. Why did we give up four terrorists to get him back?" And now its like, "Congress refused two previous attempts to cut him loose and that's why the White House didn't tell them." And I'm thinking, "Fuck, call him a mutant and bingo, you've got X-Men."

Phoenix is a city where there is a tremendous fear of The Others.

Yes, I saw the political candidate, the guy running for governor [Doug Ducey] who, in his entire ad, he does not specify which party he belongs to, but he'll "do what's necessary to stop O-bama!" Okay. Can you imagine someone running for governor anywhere in 2006, saying "I will do whatever is necessary to stop Bush!"

But here's there's also the tremendous fear of the growing Latino or immigrant population, who some in Arizona consider to be the "other." They could be analogous to mutants in a sense. You could also say to those that fear those "others," "Get over it, because pretty soon, they're not going to be the 'other,' you are." And, gee, it's not like that hasn't happened before in this country, except, you had to be Irish or German or Italian or Japanese or Chinese. I mean, this is a country that's been defined by "others" from the very beginning. The only people who don't fit the distinction are the ones who got totally screwed by it (i.e., Native Americans).

In the X-Men, mutants are the embodiment of mankind's fear of that "other." Right, and I figure if you can empathize with the X-Men, if you can suddenly see them not as mutants but as people, and relate to them as people, why not take the next step and look around yourself and relate to the people around you? Which, I guess, has always struck me as not a bad place for any modern comic book to go.

As a matter of fact, in Nightcrawler, he is the most extreme distinctive "other" in the team. He creeps out other mutants. And so I'm setting off on an arc where there's a kid in a school who's a human tarantula. So he's got [eight] legs and a tarantula's tail. God help him when he starts dating, or god help his wife or girlfriend. For me, that's interesting potentials. How does Kurt deal with somebody who's even creepier than he is? And how does he explain this reality to the kid?

And all the kid wants to do is go to college and become an astronaut, because he's really good at it. Not as an astronaut yet, but he's a scientist and he wants to go to MIT...or if he's west coast, Caltech. Why should that be a problem? And therein is the essence of the conflict, from a kid's perspective, he's a kid. Nightcrawler's own line, "I am the way I am because god, in his infinite wisdom, said, 'This is the way you look, kid.'" So why do you have a problem with that? 

This is where, unfortunately, my vision of the character and the current vision of the character run smack dab into each other like the Titanic and the iceberg.

How so? Because in my vision, his parents were kinda almost totally normal, aside from being gay — well, Mystique and Destiny. And in the official structure, his dad is a demon named Azazel? Thbbt! Well...uh, hrmph! Great...

Feel free to talk about the revisionist history of comic books. It's not revisionist, it's know. I suspect interviews the year after my [Marvel] contract is up might be different than interviews now, but that's the way it is.

When's it up? We'll keep your number handy. Hopefully not for a good long time. But the fact is, unfortunately, having his dad be Azazel eliminates one whole set of characters possibilities while at the same time opening up another whole set of character possibilities. But the point is, he's gotta help this kid figure out how to deal with life. And, at the same time, figure it out for himself, which is not a bad thing for a story arc.

Last question, If you could send your consciousness back into yourself in 1973, what would you do. Copyright everything. And stay active. But, on the other hand, it's been a helluva lot of fun. One can kvetch the living out of the unforeseen consequences. "Oh, woulda, shoulda, coulda. If I'd only, if I'd only." So you can kind of wish for all the opportunities imaginable to change everything and make it better, but the reality, its done, get over it. Figure out how to make tomorrow better.

Editor's note: This post has been modified from its original version.

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Benjamin Leatherman is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times. He covers local nightlife, music, culture, geekery, and fringe pursuits.