(Part Three of a Three-Part Blog)
I do wish to end on a positive note after the last two entries about this arc. So let it be said that -- troublesome politics and backstage dramas aside -- “Mutant Genesis” is a genuinely fun superhero story. Jim Lee and Scott Williams were at the top of their game in 1991, and their enthusiasm is evident in every panel of X-Men 1-3. The artists adorn both the plot and the visuals with a lot of slick, sci-fi trappings: Note the abundance of sci-fi technology in almost every setting, and how many of the characters wear brand-new costumes, tricked out with extra bucks and pouches (common in 90s superhero couture). Even Professor Xavier’s chair is now a piece of science-fiction machinery.
Claremont, while not nearly so enthusiastic about the comic at this point, clearly has no intention of being outpaced by his young collaborators. Displaying all the confidence of a master craftsman, the author produces text that matches the visuals at every turn. Lee and Williams clearly want the X-Men to seem as futuristic and “cool” as possible, so that’s what Claremont delivers. Even Xavier, the perennial “mentor” figure, has become something of a bad-ass (continuing the characterization that began with his pummeling of a Skrull in Uncanny 277).
By the same token, he also still has a huge emotional investment in these characters, having lived with them for a decade and a half. By all accounts, including his own, Claremont thought of them almost as real people. (His first prose novel, First Flight, is dedicated to “Charley, Scott, Jean, Ororo, Logan, Peter, Kurt, Sean, Kitty, Rogue, Betsy, Alex, Ali – and all the rest – who helped (and help) pay the rent!”). That affection shines through to the end as well. For all that they are infused with Lee’s sense of contemporary coolness, the X-Men are still portrayed with characteristic sensitivity and depth: Consider Rogue’s plea to Magneto, which displays continuity from the recent Savage Land arc that increased the two characters’ emotional closeness. At every turn, Claremont and Lee strike a beautiful balance between characters who seem remarkably sexy and hip yet still emotionally relatable. Of course, this is, to some degree or another, what Claremont had been doing for the entire 17 years.
Note also that despite the fact that he’s leaving, Claremont still employs his favorite trick of sprinkling smaller mysteries amongst the broader goings-on, to be explicated at some later date: The “Delgado” mystery in the first issue is absolutely Claremontian; while I have no evidence to back it up, I’d bet money it was Claremont’s idea and not Lee’s.
Darragh Greene, a favorite comics commentator of mine, writes about his experience of the first issue of X-Men, saying:
“My first American superhero comic was adjectiveless X-Men 1, so I just caught the tail-end of Claremont's long run writing those characters; but those three issues made an indelible impression on me. (Indeed, without them, I probably would not have gone so deep into either the genre or the medium.) They were a swansong, of course, but they were all the more powerful and passionate for that. Naturally, I was blown away by Jim Lee's art, but Claremont's assured command of language, the theatrical fluency and elegant rhythm of the words, elevated the collaboration to a dazzling work of art/literature whose epic grandeur and deep humanity fired my fourteen-year-old imagination.
I had to hunt down the back issues of Uncanny X-Men, of course, and when I did, I realized that there had been a slump in quality prior to Lee coming onboard. After he came on as regular penciller, and began taking a hand in the plotting, the book began to fizz again. I think Claremont certainly became better with the right collaborator, and I think Lee was such a collaborator even if I now know that Claremont was not happy with Lee's plotting and plot changes. Whatever the situation, there was a synergy that worked, and the book was better for it.
So, as a reader, I think Claremont's run ended on a high whatever his own thoughts were at the time. Certainly, ever afterwards, I judged the quality of the X-Books with reference to those first three startling issues of X- Men, but nothing came close.”
Though Greene is perhaps singularly eloquent in the expression of it, his experience is far from unique. Upon its release in 1991, X-Men #1 was the best-selling comic ever. Many people bought and read it, including scores of fans who had never read an X-Men comic-book before. And unlike two earlier massive Marvel best-sellers, McFarlane’s Spider-Man #1 and Liefeld’s X-Force #1, Claremont and Lee’s series actually delivered on the hype. The issue was so effervescent and absorbing that it turned brand-new readers into lifelong X-Men fans.
This is part of the brilliance of Claremont’s departure – to leave on such an extraordinarily high note. His seventeen years as writer of The X-Men is not only remarkable just for the sheer length of time itself, but for the fact that – from his first issue to his last – he was hooking vast amounts of readers. As he noted himself in an interview in 1992, the average X-Men fan when he quit hadn’t been born yet when he first started.
Having spent years now attempting to enumerate what makes each individual chapter of Claremont’s opus a unique jewel unto itself, I feel qualified to argue that just about any given issue – including his very last -- contains all the qualities that made the series a success: Fun, intelligence, eloquence, action, intrigue, an unabashed affection for the characters, and an unqualified respect for his readers.
The final monologue of X-Men #3 contains an unabashedly humanist message, a call for everyone in the world to do everything he or she can “to leave our world better than we found it.” The very fact that we live, Xavier says, “gives us the obligation to try.” Considering just how many people have been positively affected by the X-Men franchise – especially after the widespread dissemination of the mythos thanks to television and film adaptations – and considering just how much of that franchise is the invention of Claremont, it seems fair to say that the author has certainly followed his own advice. Claremont put his heart and soul into The X-Men, and infused the entire mythology – for all time, I would argue – with an irresistible power and pull. John Byrne once said that every writer and artist who worked on The X-Men after Neal Adams were just riding the wave that Adams created, but I disagree. Adams’ influence was strong, but eventually it dissipated in the wake of a much larger phenomenon. It is Christopher S. Claremont who built this mythology to last.