During his sixteen-year tenure writing issues of Uncanny X-Men, Chris Claremont revamped the X-Men franchise and lifted the mutant team to meteoric success. Even thirty years after his unprecedented run on the comic, Claremont’s vision shapes the X-Men who appear in today’s Hollywood blockbusters. He told a new kind of story, using his growing platform to articulate transgressive ideas about gender nonconformity, toxic masculinity, and female empowerment.
In his new book The Claremont Run, J. Andrew Deman delivers a data-driven deep dive to examine gender representation, content, characters, and story structure. In this Q&A, Deman offers a window into his findings and research process.
Featuring an introduction by Jay Edidin, a trans comics writer, editor, and activist who co-hosts the popular podcast Jay and Miles X-Plain the X-Men, Deman’s book The Claremont Run hits shelves on October 24, but is available for preorder now!
Check out more of our comics titles in our World Comics and Graphic Nonfiction Series edited by Frederick Luis Aldama, Christopher González, and Deborah Elizabeth Whaley.
When you read the comics from the Claremont Run, what differences are immediately obvious, compared to earlier versions of the X-Men?
I think the two main differences are the quality of the characterization (something that often takes a back seat in superhero comics, as it did in earlier X-Men comics), and (relatedly) Claremont’s commitment to long, continuous story arcs, rather than one-off story issues. These two elements combine to create a deeply humanized portrayal of his fictional characters, one that opens the door to the kind of progressive representation that he was cultivating.
What defines the “Claremont Woman” archetype and how does it challenge traditional gender roles?
Claremont himself defines the archetype (much discussed among those in the Marvel bullpen) as “any kind of woman who, at the drop of a hat, will machine-gun the hell out of anyone in her way.” Claremont was committed to writing strong female characters quite consciously. He notes, “There was a moment, I think, when I made a conscious decision by looking around seeing how few people were portraying heroic, rational, sensible women in books and comics. I thought, ‘I’ll fill that vacuum—since no one else is doing it, I’ll give it a try.’” The result is what Gail Simone has referred to as a “sea change” in superhero comics.
In what ways did Claremont’s male superheroes defy and complicate standards of masculinity?
Claremont explored the concept of toxic masculinity in a lot of different ways, first by exploring the ways in which masculine standards and ideals could be harmful to hypermasculine characters like Cyclops or Wolverine, and second by presenting alternatives to hegemonic masculinity in characters like Kurt Wagner (aka Nightcrawler), who aligned with some of the changing views on masculinity that were emerging in second-wave feminism. Both strategies can be seen to subvert the hypermasculine standards upon which the superhero genre was, arguably, founded.
How did your data-driven approach shape your analysis? What findings surprised you?
I used a mixed-methods research methodology. This just means that a lot of our readings are prompted by (rather than proven by) quantitative data. This method helps to eliminate confirmation bias and creates a more secure foundation on which to apply qualitative interpretations. As for surprises, we found that Cyclops is actually one of the most physically expressive X-Men in the series (despite his reputation for being uptight)—he’s actually quite the hugger. We also found that John Byrne (commonly identified as Wolverine’s biggest fan) actually drew Wolverine at a lower rate than Dave Cockrum did. Finally, we found that Wolverine was not the deadliest X-Man. That honor goes to Psylocke, who actually kills more people than the X-Men’s supposedly most lethal hero.
How did Claremont’s tenure as the author of Uncanny X-Men shape the comic book industry and comics audiences?
Claremont cultivated the superhero soap opera: making readers care about the Gods-in-tights beings that occupy the genre. He pushed the medium. He is credited with, among other things, creating the first successful African American superheroine (Cocca 125); the first Black superhero team leader (Darowski, X-Men 78); the first canonically Jewish superhero (Cronin); extensive queer subtext (Fawaz 35); extensive BDSM (bondage, domination, submission, and masochism) imagery (Howe 77); and the first superhero team with a strong female roster (Powell 73), as well as having the best-selling single-issue comic of all time (Glenday 300) and of course enjoying the longest continuous run by a single author in Marvel’s history (Powell 6). What’s most remarkable, however, is that he pushed the medium so far within a comic that was the most popular of its time. His work is the rare example of popular success and innovation occupying the same space and thus speaking to the masses from the largest possible platform.
What is the relevance for and impact of Claremont’s work on gender representation in the context of today’s social and cultural landscape?
It’s everywhere. Claremont articulated for the masses that women could be amazing superheroes. His work is acknowledged by the creators of other iconic and empowered female heroes, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Eleven from Stranger Things. At the same time, he showed the world that there was more than one kind of masculinity and that the pursuit of masculinity need not be the simple heroic virtue that it was usually made out to be in cultural materials. He took the binary-gendered world of comics and built a cosmogony of gender alternatives in its place.
J. Andrew Deman is on the faculty in the Department of English Language and Literature at St. Jerome’s University and the author of The Margins of Comics: The Construction of Women, Minorities, and the Geek in Graphic Narrative.