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Waiting For Tommy
By Richard Johnston

RICHARD: Why does this only seem to benefit your X-Men? The only one that seems to get attention? Sovereign Seven, Gen 13, Star Trek, even Fantastic Four, in comparison they seem to be ignored by retailers, fans, readers and pundits. Yet the moment your name is associated with X-Men, in they come running - and we're getting to the stage when many of them weren't reading comics when you were writing X-Men the first time.

CHRIS: Force of habit, maybe? It's a rare privilege to serve as the defining element of a generation, even if it's only generation of comic books. A friend of mine recently observed that, given my output and the length of time involved, there are easily well over one hundred million copies of my work in print in the US. And that doesn't count reprints, trade compilation, foreign editions and what-have-you. That represents an awesome - even daunting -- benchmark against which to measure current ambitions and success. But since the vast preponderance of that work consists of X-Canon material, it also casts a huge shadow over anything else I decide to do. I spent better than twenty years establishing a certain "comfort zone" for the readers, and I confess for myself. A personal "brand identity", if you will. Chris Claremont = X-Men, end of story. Breaking that mould by moving on to other companies, other series, means stepping outside that zone for both parties. That means building the author/audience relationship all over again, in whole new terms. By way of comparison, everyone had the highest of hopes - given the tremendous success of Daredevil - for Frank Miller's Ronin. That was great stuff. But commercially, a goose egg! Because Frank stepped outside the Comfort Zone established on Daredevil and at that point in time the readers weren't prepared to follow. Ironically, the work he did on Ronin paved the way for Dark Knight, which redefined the relationship and the character in whole new ways, to everyone's benefit, with repercussions that last to this day. So Frank wins in the end.

In my own case, as regards Sovereign - what can I say? Not every concept clicks, not every book is guaranteed success. The creative synergy wasn't there in any way that resonated with the audience. Star Trek: Debt of Honor sold out its print run in barely two weeks, and the trade edition did equally well, so I don't think that falls within your paradigm. In terms of the Fantastic Four, while Salva and I took some fan flak in the early issues, the book was always a consistent top seller. By the time we really got rolling with the "Doom" arc that concluded our run, reader reaction to the title was extremely positive and we closed-out as a Top Ten title, ending higher on the Diamond listings (I believe) than when Salva and I started. Readers had certain expectations, for me as a writer and for the title itself; it took time to lead them to the point where they were willing to accept - and enjoy -- the book and us on our own terms. What I found most frustrating was being removed as writer just when it felt like Salva and I were poised to kick things to the next level and really start having fun.

Gen-13 - I hope the jury's still out but again, readers approach the title with their inherent expectations and prejudices. In this case, since we're talking about a global reboot of a well-established series, the bar was set far higher than would otherwise be normal. Firstly and foremost, we faced the challenge of overcoming the already existing brand identity of the series. Gen-13 has ten years of history with the marketplace; now that same marketplace is being presented with something completely different, that derives as little as possible from the existing continuity. That means assaulting a decade's worth of ingrained prejudices and preconceptions (both good and bad). This also applies to the writer, who comes with his own (considerable) train of baggage. That means trying to find a way to invite in those readers who weren't interested in the previous iteration, while holding onto those readers who stuck with the book to its end (and who may not appreciate the abrupt dismissal of characters and a Universe they'd so heavily invested in.) No easy task. How do I feel about the series? Quite passionate, actually. I think it represents some of my best work, in part because it stems from a very real time and place, because what (editor) Bob Harras and I were determined to accomplish from the start was to ground this series and these characters in our world. We wanted to create accessible, likeable - young - characters and view them from a fundamentally positive perspective. They have problems, yes; their lives have been turned upside-down, yes; but the gist of their response, and of most of the people they deal with (government included) is ultimately hopeful.

Right now, at this point in my life as creator and as audience I have no time and less patience for dystopias. I read on-line posts demanding that books become more "relevant" which turns out to be interpreted as darker and bleaker in tone, less mythic, less likeable, far less interesting. In some respects, this might be called the "Brutalist" age of comics. Characters who should be far larger than life have become small and tawdry and inconsequential. The stories I read, the characters I see, provide me with no enjoyment. To my own mind, it's no accident that one of the surprise hits of this year has been Jim Lee and Jeph Loeb's Batman, which is basically the classic character in some pretty classic stories, produced with style and panache, our equivalent of a big-screen, big-budget motion picture. Am I right in my assessment or is my thinking hopelessly mired in the last century? I don't know. But it seems in the broader arena of popular culture, the films and TV shows that succeed are those with clear-cut, well-defined heroes - and villains - and conflicts, whose characters are accessible and likeable. There might be a lesson there, since compared to the worst of them our best commercial efforts are pretty much inconsequential.



RICHARD: Talking of which, "Trust A Few. Fear The Rest". Did you find that to be a sensitive enough strapline for a story about prejudice against minorities?

CHRIS: Sure. As valid certainly as its antithesis: "Fear a Few. Trust the Rest." A strapline is a strapline, it's a concept, a slogan, advertising. It's where you go with it that makes the difference.

RICHARD: Where did it go, for you? You were quoted as blaming much of what the X-titles had become on your editor and then editor-in-chief, Bob Harras. How did you reconcile this before your run on Gen 13? And how does the current regime compare to Marvel, when you left it?

CHRIS: Bob and I had our differences and at the time they were both passionate and considerable. Over time, we resolved them. Once more, we became colleagues and friends. You got a problem with happy endings?

RICHARD: Ah, my favourite Star Wars movie was The Empire Strikes Back. Probably something in my genes. You were quoted at one point, after leaving the X-titles in the mid-nineties, that your characters were being raped and gutted. How did you reconcile that on your return a few years ago, and did you feel the film treated the characters better? What about the sequel?

CHRIS: Times change, attitudes change, circumstances change, people change - hopefully for the better. I made my decision to return to Marvel, and ultimately to the X-Men for the same reason that I decided to leave in 1991, because it felt like the right thing to do. The nice thing about the hiatus was that it enabled me to approach the characters and the Canon with what I hoped was a relatively fresh and objective eye, so I could examine what worked with them and what did not in ways that I perhaps couldn't have done earlier, being so immersed for so long in the book and their "lives." The delightful discovery was that, on returning, the passion I felt for the characters and the sense that there were still a great many stories yet to tell about them was as strong as it ever was. Three years later, that hasn't changed.

As far as the movies are concerned, I feel both X-Men and X2 have been extraordinarily faithful to the heart and soul - the essence of the characters, and of the concept. That's what made writing the novelization so much fun: I was depicting in prose characters who were substantially the people I'd been writing all these many years in comics. The only difference being that now I had real faces and voices to append to these creations of pen and ink.

RICHARD: The new X-Men movie appears to be based around God Loves Man Kills, despite denials by the studio. X-Treme X-Men is going to contain a direct sequel to that story, do you believe the original stands up twenty years on?


RICHARD: Okay... while the demographic age of comic readers may increase, there will still be a considerable number of your readers who weren't reading comics - hell, they may not have been alive then. "Dark Phoenix" is a reference in Buffy that they never got. Has anything significant changed in the issues in God Loves, Man Kills? The book seems to have a pointed, indeed satirical take on religion, specifically of the evangelical Christian variety, though it's clearly about wider themes of bigotry and even the very humanness of evil. What aspects of current society and recent history do you believe it has relevance to? And how does the sequel develop those?

CHRIS: I think, I hope, the sequel continues the debate posed in its predecessor, again focused through the prism of Kitty Pryde, about the nature of good and evil, the role of faith and the responsibility of ethical people - especially "super-heroes" -- in confronting these challenges. The success in resolving these questions is better posed to the readers, when the story's done.

RICHARD: Watch this space. Right. The question everyone wants answered. Is Lockheed gay? If so, could there be a best selling mini-series in it? The Dragon Love That Dare Not Flame Its Name?

CHRIS: I don't recall I've ever established Lockheed's gender. (Although I freely confess to being wrong should someone wish to correct me.) So what are we talking here? Lockheed's a lady and we're looking at inter-species romance with Kitty? (And readers thought all those stolen moments with Karma in MekaniX were just throw-aways, hah! Just laying yet another layer of Loose Ends on the Canon. Damn, and I was just gearing up to pitch a relationship between her and Logan!)

Time will tell. And as I find myself fond of saying, especially concerning comics, anything's possible.

X-Treme X-Men is published monthly, and then some, from Marvel Comics. Rich Johnston writes Lying In The Gutters http://litg.comicbookresources.com and is currently preparing for the Live-Ing In the Gutters at this year's Bristol Comics Convention http://www.sitsvac.org/C2001.html

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