Chris Claremont And When Characters Should Get To Move On

So I’ve written about my issues with Grant Morrison. I’ve written about my issues with Geoff Johns. Now it’s time for something a little more controversial: my issues with Chris Claremont.

Claremont is an icon. He defined the X-Men. Forget Stan Lee, it’s Claremont whose baby this universe really is. Most of the best X-Men stories come from him. You can see that by the movies and what they choose to adapt – Dark Phoenix? Based on his work. X2? That’s based on God Loves, Man Kills, another of his. Days of Future Past? Ding, ding, that’s him. And it’s not even just his older work which is good – recently, he’s done the Magneto issue of X-Men: Black, which is fantastic (and anyone that’s read it should totally message me so we can geek out about it together). But there’s a reason that, for the most part, I mostly avoid talking about what he’s done past about the year 1981, and that’s that I staunchly disagree with the way he’s interpreted Scott Summers since then.

Let me be clear. Claremont is one of – if not the – best Cyclops writers of all time, and for much of the same reasons that he’s pretty much the undisputed king of all X-Men material. He’s written many outstanding stories that showed Scott as a human, with strengths and flaws alike. He’s one of the reasons that I’m a Cyclops fan. But he also makes me really sad, because he’s never let go of a certain editorially mandated plot: the Madelyne Pryor thing.

And the thing is, I do understand where his anger comes from! I do! Without Claremont, the X-Men probably wouldn’t still exist. They’d have faded into obscurity, because before him, they were nothing. If anyone has a right to object to how other writers have treated the characters, or what executive meddling made him do, it’s him. I fully understand his commitment to the long game, to character arcs, to letting characters grow and change. I even admire it a lot – he didn’t want the roster to stay stagnant, he wanted the Xavier Institute to be more than just a training ground for superheroes, he wanted the X-Men to have enough successes that the members could move on and have a real life, rather than fighting an endless battle doomed to failure. All that is good. BUT…the characters still have to remain true to who they are, even as they get to grow. And a Scott Summers that would just stay home when someone needs him is no Scott Summers at all. So while I do think the way in which he abandoned his wife and child was poorly written and out of character, I can’t fault him for the action of going, because he didn’t leave Madelyne to be with Jean, he left to see if she was alive and help mutants with every intention of returning to be with his family.

Let me reiterate that because it bears repeating: Scott didn’t leave Madelyne for Jean. SCOTT DIDN’T LEAVE MADELYNE FOR JEAN.  He left to find out if she was alive. He went back because Warren was like, hey, Scott, we need you. And Maddie was all, if you leave, don’t bother coming back. And Scott was just, Maddie, they’re my friends, they need me. The fact that that Claremont has always referred to that event as Scott dumping his wife for his ex signifies to me that he’s so emotionally involved with the characters, that he can’t see them clearly and misremembers the details.

Again, I love Claremont’s work. But I can also recognize that when he started taking all his issues with the editors out on Cyclops, he was forgetting he was the writer. Sure, he didn’t write the issue where Scott left Maddie. He wasn’t the one that made the decision to bring Jean back. But he’s a talented enough writer that he could have made it work, and of the reasons it didn’t was because everything involving Maddie was bad writing from the beginning.

I’m never sure what I think about her as a character, even before the Goblin Queen thing, because it seems kind of like Claremont wanted it both ways. It wasn’t his idea to kill Jean at the end of the Dark Phoenix Saga, it was Jim Shooter’s. Claremont wanted her to lose her powers and leave the team with Scott, blah, blah, blah. Obviously, that didn’t happen. What did was Scott met Madelyne and proposed very, very quickly, ultimately going off to do the same thing he would have done had Jean lived, just with a different woman. That looked and sounded exactly like his dead girlfriend. Who wasn’t originally intended to be a Jean clone, but still had a lot of weird things about her character indicating that she was still someone unusual and tied to Jean somehow, even though Claremont claimed she was just a normal woman who, in a one in a million coincidence, happened to look just like Jean. Claremont was simultaneously using Maddie as a Jean substitute and insisting that that’s not what she was.

Did Maddie deserve better? Yes. Undoubtedly. We’re talking about a perfectly nice, normal woman that was turned into a villain so audiences would stop caring about her and the impact of her husband dumping her. She’s Nathan’s mother, who loved him and didn’t get a chance to raise him – and to add insult to injury, Jean did. AKA, the woman Maddie was cloned from and whom she didn’t want to be compared to and whom her husband loved. So, yeah, there’s no argument from me that Maddie deserved better than what she got. But she was also hugely contrived. She was some of the worst writing Claremont has ever produced. For a start, clones are almost never the right answer, but somehow, Claremont managed the one storyline where that made more sense than just about anything else. Beyond that, Maddie just didn’t feel like a Claremont creation.

Claremont usually plays the long game. He sets things up that you have to wait to see pay off. Not so with Madelyne. Everything involving her happened way too fast for that. Her first appearance was in April of 1983. The issue in which she and Scott got married? That was released in November of that same year. So in the span of three years real time, Scott lost Jean, met a woman identical to her that he thought was her, and married her. It was rushed. It was sloppy. Neither of those things are things Claremont is known for.

It was undoubtedly sexist that everything that went wrong in Scott and Maddie’s relationship got put on her and she was made a villain so people would stop blaming Scott for walking out. But it was also sexist that Claremont’s vision of a happy ending involved Scott leaving the team with a woman identical to Jean, who he couldn’t have because she was dead. There’s a disconnect between what the Scott/Maddie relationship was supposed to be and what it came across as. Scott claimed he knew Maddie wasn’t Jean and loved her for her, but their whole relationship progressed so fast, and for the sake of letting Scott fade to black, that it didn’t at all feel like the happy ending Claremont saw it as. Especially when you consider the scenes of things like Maddie angry with Scott for still being worried about mutant issues, as if retiring from the X-Men changed the fact that he was a mutant. Their marriage involved glossing over Scott’s grief for Jean, the discrimination he faced as a mutant, the importance of the X-Men to him, and his years of trauma. It felt more like a deeply traumatized man that was still grieving latching onto someone because of how much she reminded him of the love of his life and trying to convince himself it wasn’t just him trying to replace her, like a story about loss and unhealthy coping mechanisms, than a romantic happily ever after.

Sure, looks aren’t everything. But I’d still see Claremont’s side of it a lot more if Maddie looked nothing like Jean. If she was just some random woman that Scott happened to fall in love with, who helped him get over losing Jean. Because as much as Claremont tried to say that that’s what she was, it was at least partially negated by her resemblance to Jean, because it would never have been possible for Scott to look at her without seeing Jean, who he wasn’t with because she died, not because they’d broken up. Maddie was fine. And it did make Scott look horrible – and very out of character – to leave her. But for me, Claremont never put enough work into actually defining her outside of who she wasn’t.

Claremont was so bitter about how Scott treated Maddie, he felt so strongly that that tarnished Scott’s character forever, that I think he ultimately did more damage to more characters because of it. He took out his anger at the editors out on Scott, which ruined a lot of stories and assassinated even more characters in the process, especially Jean.

Claremont wrote the definitive Jean Grey story in the Dark Phoenix Saga. It’s been retconned to hell and back, but it’s his most well known story. It’s the one that just about everyone, comic fan or not, knows. It’s the single greatest love story in all of X-Men canon, and it’s not just a love story about Scott and Jean, it’s one to them. Because Jean is love, because it was the love she and Scott shared that brought her back to himself. It was an amazing story that showed just what Claremont thought of the two characters. It was also very clearly intended as an ending for them, in a medium that doesn’t really have endings in that sense. Because of that, because Scott lived while Jean didn’t and Claremont tried to give him an ending similar to what he would have had if they’d both survived, things got messy. And since 1986, when X-Factor started coming out and the whole Scott Jean Maddie thing went down, Claremont hasn’t looked at them the same. He’s been trying to kill their relationship ever since, cheapening Jean’s love for Scott, making Logan look like an obsessive stalker creep. Classic X-Men, which I’m pretty sure was the first time anyone had ever indicated that Jean was attracted to Logan, rather than it being entirely onesided. X-Men Forever,  where Jean cheated on Scott with Logan. I saw someone comment a while ago that if Claremont were writing the Dark Phoenix Saga today, he’d have probably made it about Jean and Logan rather than Jean and Scott, and it breaks my heart to realize that that’s probably true. He’s been so bitter about Cyclops that he’s assassinated not only Scott’s character, but Jean and Logan’s as well.

I think my main problem with Claremont is that I know he’s largely right – not about Scott, not about Maddie, but about the progression of characters in general –  but I hate how he deals with that on a fundamental level. He’s of a mind that the roster can’t be ever expanding. People have to leave to make room for the new ones. Which I get. Like I said in this post, I’m all for stories that are self contained and that end. But Scott Summers matters too much to me. The idea of shelving him upsets me beyond the point of rationality. For me, saying that he should just be put aside to focus on other characters, maybe dusting him off now and then to cameo…it’s the equivalent of someone saying, oh, how about we send Superman back to his farm so we can focus on Kara and Kon instead?

I’d love it if characters could leave the teams they’re on, stop fighting crime, while still continuing to exist as characters. I’d love a comic about Scott and what he does outside of being a superhero. I’d love more stories about pushing for mutant rights in the political sphere, or teaching kids physics. But I know that’s now how it works. Characters are either in the thick of the action, or ignored. I – and I think most readers – believe they have more value than their role as fighters, but that’s not what the powers that be want to focus on. They don’t think long term character development is as important as cool powers and big fight scenes. Claremont may not have wanted Scott to entirely disappear, but if he had gotten his way, with Scott never returning to a team, he would have essentially done so.

X-Factor wasn’t what Claremont wanted. Jean coming back wasn’t what he wanted, and Scott and Jean getting back together definitely wasn’t what he wanted. But in a way, it’s a compliment, too – because Claremont crafted a Scott/Jean romance so convincing that people find it inconceivable that they won’t come back together. That doesn’t hold true for any other X-Men relationship.  It’s a testament to how powerful Claremont’s writing can be, even if he didn’t see it that way at all. Generally, I don’t mind – too much – what characters a writer chooses to pair together if the story ultimately works. And I would have been fine with Scott staying with Maddie, even if the “looks identical to Jean” thing still creeped me out. But it bothers me that Claremont remained so bitter about Scott leaving to form X-Factor – and not getting back together with Jean for a long time after that – that he could never move on.

I love Claremont. I do. But I’m not a believer in creator worship, and I have a lot of problems with some of his stuff. And that extends far beyond Scott, it’s just that Scott’s my favourite Marvel character, and I have the most opinions about him. Claremont’s positives include revamping countless characters, awesome women, clear depictions of bisexuality even when editors wouldn’t let him say it outright, and some incredible  stories. His negatives, that creepy Kitty and Piotr relationship and (I think) that gross “white woman inhabiting the body of a Japanese woman” thing. Frankly, I hold Claremont to higher standards than I do most other writers, because I think he’s better than this. He has more talent than just about every other writer that’s handled the X-Men. He completely reinvented Magneto from standard and forgettable villain to the complex, brilliant character he is today – and I repeat, everyone should go read X-Men: Black – Magneto, it’s amazing. Claremont is awesome. I just wish he could let go of the past and stop taking out his anger at editors out on characters.

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3 thoughts on “Chris Claremont And When Characters Should Get To Move On

  1. This is one of those cases where hindsight is 20:20. Yes, nowadays it’s obvious that introducing Madelyne Pryor was a spectacularly bad idea.

    However, it’s important to keep in mind when this took place. In 1983 X-Men was far & away Marvel’s bestselling title, and this gave Chris Claremont a lot more pull & influence than probably any other writer working for the company. Also in 1983 there were quite a few major characters at Marvel who had died and had stayed dead, seemingly forever. So at the time it appeared that, just like Bucky Barnes and Norman Osborn and Baron Strucker and Gwen Stacy and a lot of others, Jean Grey was absolutely, positively dead, and was never coming back. So it probably seemed perfectly reasonable to Claremont to introduce Maddie, and he no doubt had the influence to make sure the plot got greenlit.

    Of course, as we all now know, in the end Marvel considers all its talent to be disposable, no matter how many books they sell. We also know that NOBODY ever stays dead at Marvel permanently. So, yeah, Claremont bringing in Maddie now seems both shortsighted and naive.

    Claremont is a very talented writer… but I definitely believe he benefits from working with talented artists who offer their story ideas or actually co-plot with him (i.e. John Byrne) , as well as an editor who can be both sympathetic to his intentions but firm enough to tell him when something is a bad idea. Louise Simonson was generally a great editor, but in this case she ought to have told Claremont that Maddie was a no-go. But, again, it’s all hindsight.

    In any case, despite his flaws, I love Claremont’s work. On the whole he did amazing stuff on X-Men, and elsewhere. I did not even know he had written the recent Magneto special until you mentioned it here, because it’s been several years since I’ve paid close attention to anything Marvel (or DC) does. Thank you for the info. I picked up the issue this week. Here is my review of it…

    https://benjaminherman.wordpress.com/2018/10/21/x-men-black-magneto/

    Like

    1. Keya Sengupta

      Oh, I completely agree. I’m not questioning introducing a character to fulfill the role Maddie did. I actually quite liked her most of the time. But I really didn’t see the necessity of making her look identical to Jean. Even if Jean had stayed dead, like Claremont had intended – actually, probably especially then – it would still seem kind of…I don’t know, skeevy? To marry Scott off to a woman that looked identical to his dead girlfriend.

      I get what you mean. The Dark Phoenix Saga only turned out the way it did because Jim Shooter told Claremont to kill Jean. Otherwise, we’d probably have largely the same stories in the next few years, but with Jean replacing Maddie. And a lot of the time, he seems incapable of trusting the illustrators to do their job and instead, overwrites everything. Simonson was awesome. Even outside of what she did as an editor, I thought her X-Factor run was pretty awesome. I’m generally all for creative freedom, but you’re right – I can’t say I would have minded if she had pushed back against the spectacularly terrible Madelyne idea.

      And ooooh, I’m gonna go read your post right now.

      Liked by 1 person

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