Doc Watch: Chris Claremont's X-Men (2018)
Director: Patrick Meaney
Chris Claremont didn't invent the X-Men, but he did turn them from a middling Marvel team book that could have/ should have disappeared into a sprawling mythology with beloved characters that became a multimedia franchise (that Disney is probably losing a lot of sleep over how to properly exploit). Chris Claremont didn't introduce me to comics, but he did write comics that hit me like lightning, over and over again, and made me a devoted comics reader - a habit that has lasted 35+ years.
While everyone is still young and healthy, a documentary crew put together what is really a remarkable doc explaining what Claremont's X-Men was, why it was so unique in the world of comics, and what eventually broke it. Including interviews from people who broke it, still totally unaware of what they did 25 years after the fact, still high on their own supply.
This isn't a doc for the uninitiated. I suppose seeing the X-films will get you a very rough outline of what they're talking about, but you do get the feeling that coming to the film with some basics of comics and comics in the 1980's is a helpful start. I don't think they ever really explain, for example, "Jim Shooter" and what he was to comics, just his role in the history of Claremont's X-Men.
For those of us with a passing knowledge of that era of Uncanny X-Men, it's a fascinating peek behind the curtain. Claremont was on that title, and involved with Marvel's mutant books, for about 17 years - and Simonson in orbit or directly involved for about 15 years of that. For most comics, a writer staying on for 12 months/ issues is remarkable - but staying on for five years is almost unimaginable unless the character is privately owned by that creator (see: The Savage Dragon). For me, personally, X-Men stopped existing as something I cared about when it was clear Claremont was being shoved to the side for the hip artists of the moment, none of which seemed to understand what was actually interesting about X-Men - nor did Marvel's brass. So, yeah, there's some genuine pathos baked in as you see Claremont caught in the convergence of the horror-show that was the 90's superhero comics industry (which I actually bailed on for a bit) and other forces outside his power.
The primary figures are somewhat represented - including Chris Claremont, Louise Simonson, and Ann Nocenti - figures I knew entirely as names written out by X-letterer Tom Orzechowski until I saw Louise Simonson in some Superman docs by DC (she left Marvel to work on Superman just prior to The Death of Superman, in which she had a hand). John Byrne makes no appearance, but expect Len Wein(!), Jim Shooter and some commentators including the tremendous Heidi MacDonald. Of course, folks like Dave Cockrum had passed by the time this doc was made.
But the doc does talk about Claremont's uniquely gender-balanced (and often female-dominant) casts, but doesn't ever quite dig into exactly how that happened other than Claremont just thought it was dumb that most books had "girl" as a role on the team, giving you one to two females, depending on the size of the squad (I very much remember reading an X-issue and realizing "the last male character here is Longshot, and he's not exactly an alpha male").
Further, it discusses how Claremont played with pacing, character development and character driven issues, etc... and what that meant to readers. And, believe me, I've been stunned as a reader in the years since that only Sandman and a few other choice titles through Vertigo seemed to get how this could work.
One thing they do indulge in, which I've seen in a lot of low-budget docs of late - they insert actors, often shot in slow motion with moody lighting, either re-enacting a scene or giving some flavor to the endless talking heads. This one finds Cosplayers to dress as Shadowcat, Phoenix, Emma Frost and Storm. It's not... awful. But it's a little weird.
There's also not much reflection of what golden goose Marvel killed with the end of Claremont's tenure on X-Men. Instead, they kind of gawk at the giant numbers X-Men #1 sold and then shrug. But the fact is... X-Men has been surviving on nostalgia for Claremont's era and the goose Morrison gave the title in the mid-2000's for almost two decades. The titles are mid-tier sellers at best most months, and the numbers that means move per month are a fraction of what X-Men sold when Claremont was at the helm.
There's also a minimum of discussion of "why didn't anyone in comics learn from what Claremont, et al, accomplished? Both narratively and sales wise?" The usual knee-jerk company responses are tossed out by company boys. "It's someone else's toybox" is not an actual answer, it's a fact of inconvenience. And it ignores that television and other media don't really behave this way. Everyone seems to be looking at the wrong evidence promised by those sales of X-Men #1 but not what X-sales looked like by 2000, even with a movie out. Or how Marvel has a big push to revitalize X-Men. Again. Every four years or so. Even bringing Claremont back, but always with a leash on him.
There's some indication of how many people became habitual comic readers via X-Men, but they could have also presented hard numbers. What was Avengers moving at that time? How many people in their 40's and 50's can you dig up for whom Storm and Cyclops were a very big deal? It's not just anecdotal. The comics industry of the 1980's into the 90's didn't survive on just Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen.
They don't outright say it, but in the 1980's, Claremont had an impact along the lines of Frank Miller and Alan Moore. He just wasn't able to parlay that into cult status when his run on X-Men was over - even as they've translated his work into multiple movies and TV shows as well. People have been happy to ignore that he and his compatriots were as much auteurs as Moore and Miller. Maybe the doc will help explain a bit of that? I don't know. But for anyone serious about comics history, the doc is, in fact, vital.
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