"When you’re a work-for-hire writer on a concept like X-Men, letting go of the characters happens the minute you put pen to paper," Chris Claremont says as he explains what it’s been like for him to watch Hugh Jackman embody Wolverine in four previous X-Men films, in advance of the release of Fox’s The Wolverine. "It’s a shared universe, with a lot of other people playing with the same toys."
That may be true, but Claremont got to spend plenty of time with his hands on those toys. From 1975 to 1991, Claremont was the defining voice of the X-Men franchise, writing hundreds of issues of Uncanny X-Men, New Mutants, Excalibur, Wolverine, and more during that time. While he didn’t create the character of Wolverine, or some of the others who’ve become international pop-culture icons under his watch (Claremont’s first issue of Uncanny X-Men was Wolverine’s fourth appearance), he did define both the franchise and, in many ways, the genre of superhero comics during his 17-year tenure.
Still, what he says is accurate: While it’s hard to argue that the X-Men, and particularly a character like Wolverine, would have become a multimillion-dollar property without Claremont’s guidance (the title was under constant threat of cancellation before he came on), he also isn’t the only person who’s had a stake in those characters. And, while most people who add to the X-Men mythos are still clearly taking their cues from Claremont’s nearly two-decade run, it’s also been a long time since he was guiding the X-Men’s adventures.
So how do you maximize your creativity when you’re only one part of a big machine? Here are some lessons that Chris Claremont learned as he crafted the adventures that still define the characters of Wolverine and the X-Men.
Much of the material that The Wolverine draws from has its roots in a five-issue Wolverine mini-series that Claremont and artist Frank Miller created together in 1982.
Marvel Comics, especially in the '80s and earlier, worked in a unique house style: While most comics today are fully scripted and then turned over to an artist to draw, the Marvel style involved a writer crafting a detailed outline of the issue, which he (or occasionally she) would then turn over to the artist to pace out and illustrate, before finally writing the completed script. And that’s how Claremont’s collaboration with Miller began. "My first plot for issue number one was my usual 20-page, single-spaced, this happens, this is why it happens, this is how Logan feels,’ yadda yadda yadda," Claremont says. But as the collaboration continued, he found that his vision and Miller’s for the character were compatible enough that he didn’t need to go into such detail.
"By the time we got to the fourth issue, I knew Frank’s vision of the character, and Frank knew my vision of the character," Claremont says. "We basically talked on the phone for 20 minutes, sketching out the physical structure of the issue, and I wrote a one-page synthesis of it, so he could refer back to it: ‘This is the emotional moment, this is where it ends.’" According to Claremont, learning to let go of control of the character isn’t just a matter of ownership—it’s also a matter of trusting that the other people who are involved can do their jobs at least as well as you can do yours.
"When you’re a writer, and you’re working with a storyteller of such extraordinary abilities as Frank Miller, you don’t need to explain all this stuff," he says. "He knows. He’s probably a step ahead of you. The key element is to treat this as what comics should always be: a true collaboration so that, as a writer, you’re always open to the visual presentation of the moment and ideas that the artist can bring to it, to make it look and flow better."
The fact that The Wolverine takes place in Japan might seem like an attempt to cash in on the increasingly important international audience for blockbusters, but that’s one of the elements that dates back to the 1982 minseries that Claremont and Miller created. While the idea of placing a character like Wolverine—characterized as a scrappy, rural Canadian roughneck—into a Japanese cultural context might look like an unlikely decision, Claremont says that it’s something he understood as part of his identity from the moment that he started writing the title.
"Logan’s extension to Japanese samurai-ronin culture is a logical—for me, anyway, as the writer—characterization," he says. "And a logical extension of the character. It was all there for me in the beginning. It’s just a matter of putting it down and bringing it into focus."
Claremont is quick to point out that his work wasn’t created in a vacuum, and to give credit to his collaborators on the stories he wrote—in addition to Miller, he’ll name-drop artists like Dave Cockrum, John Byrne, Paul Smith, and John Romita, Jr., as well as editors Louise Simonson, Ann Nocenti, Jim Salicrup, Jim Shooter, Roger Stern, and Stan Lee, all inside of a 45-minute phone conversation. But while he’s not eager to claim more credit than he’s due, it’s equally clear that his willingness to bring things to the characters that might not seem entirely intuitive were creative risks worth taking.
Claremont recalls creating in Uncanny X-Men a character that fans of the early '90s-era X-Men cartoon may recall—Jubilee—and how for him, that character’s introduction solidified unpleasant things about who Wolverine was. "When you actually sit down and think about what Logan is doing with this little kid, it’s awful," Claremont says of the story line that brought Jubilee into the X-Men, after she rescued a dying Wolverine in an issue from the late '80s. "To me, that epitomizes the tragic heroism of Logan and why he’ll always be a ronin and never, in the idealized sense, a samurai."
Claremont wasn’t the writer who created the character of Wolverine; that was Len Wein, along with artist John Romita, Sr. Wein wrote Wolverine’s first appearance, in an issue of The Incredible Hulk, and brought the character with him to Giant-Sized X-Men a year later. And while Wein’s contributions can’t be overlooked, at that point, much of what defines the character came from Claremont and his collaborators.
"Len Wein’s original concept of Wolverine was that he was a kid—that he was just like all the other X-Men, somewhere in his late to middle teens, and the claws were not a part of him," Claremont recalls. But at an early Marvel plot conference, artist Dave Cockrum, who collaborated on the X-Men titles with both Wein and Claremont, had a different idea. "Dave sprung the claws being a part of him on me," he laughs. "It was like, Oh my god—that’s disgusting. Holy shit!"
That tweak to the character became the basis for both a major part of Claremont’s concept of the character, as well as one of his favorite moments in the first X-Men movie.
"That became one of the defining elements," Claremont says. "And in the first film, when Rogue and Logan are driving in his truck, she looks over at him and looks down at his hand and says, ‘When they come out, does it hurt?’ And Hugh Jackman just looks at her, tosses a little glance at his hand, and then looks straight ahead. To me, this is where he bonded totally with everything I’d ever conceived of with the character: He said, ‘Every time.’ The way he looked, and the way he said it, and the body language that projected as that all happened crystallized in that instance of what I would take a year or two to put on paper in the comic."
That’s how collaboration can work: Cockrum’s revision of an element that Wein and Romita had created led Claremont to come up with an interpretation of the character that’s endured for decades. "The point is that every time those claws come out, he’s stabbing himself," Claremont says. "That’s why, with me, my mantra was that the claws always have to be a last resort, simply because it hurts. That, for me, was a crucial moment with the character. It gave me, as the writer, a foundation on which to build character moments and evolutionary emotional moments—with the other X-Men and, ultimately, America."