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Saturday, October 8, 2016

The Best There Is At What He Does: The Jason Powell Interview


Jason Powell, whom some of you know from his comments on my X-Men posts here, but many more of you likely know from his own series of articles reviewing every issue of Chris Claremont's X-Men over at Remarkable, has written a book about Claremont's X-Men writing, The Best There Is At What He Does, which is now available for purchase

I had the occasion to sit down with Jason (ie we exchanged some emails) to interview him about the book, what it's about, how it came about, etc., as well as get some thoughts from him on his favorite Claremont characters and collaborators. Check it out, but also, you know, go buy his book
What are the books vital statistics: title, subject, the elevator pitch?

The book is has a nice, brief, snappy title:

The Best There Is At What He Does: Examining Chris Claremont’s X-Men

Claremont said in 1994 that his 16-year X-Men run from 1975 to 1991 was “all one story,” so this was an attempt to look at the whole thing as a single work, albeit piece-by-piece, similarly to what I did on Geoff Klock’s blog “Remarkable,” and to what you do of course on your website. Obviously other critics have taken longitudinal looks at the X-Men, like Paul O’Brien. The difference is that I was only interested in that 16-year-and-change slice that Claremont wrote.

What led you to this project? Did you have the book in mind and sought out a publisher, or did your earlier writing on Claremont catch someone's attention? Why now?

The blogs I did for Geoff’s website were where it all began. Geoff, having published one book on comics himself at the time, had an eye for these things I guess. (Since then he’s published a second book about comics.) So he looked at how the blogs were shaping up and said, “We should pitch this as a book.” At first we tried to combine mine with his blogs about Grant Morrison’s X-Men, but the publishers weren’t biting. Patrick Meaney, who did Sequart’s Claremont documentary Comics in Focus: Chris Claremont’s X-Men, was working on a companion book for Sequart. Sequart was the only place that was interested in publishing a Claremont book at all (or at least that I could find), but Patrick already had one in the works, so mine would have been redundant. Eventually Patrick, with whom I ended up working on a different film project entirely, decided there were other projects that called to him more strongly than a book, and he was kind enough to suggest to Sequart that maybe now they should accept my proposal, as his own similar book was off the table. As for “why now?” Well, it just took me that long to finish it.

What makes the book different from your Remarkable blog posts on Claremont's X-Men, and how did the experience of writing the two differ?


I confess that the book was always a glint in my eye as I was doing the blogs, and I did occasionally approach them with an eye toward how they would look all assembled together. That’s why I’d occasionally go off on tangents that were sort of about Claremont’s approach in general, using certain issues as a springboard. You mentioned in your own review of Uncanny #217 that it was in my blog entry for that issue that I pointed out that “I am the best there is at what I do” is in iambic pentameter. Which is true, but it was funny to see you point it out. Why was I talking about Wolverine’s catch-phrase in an entry for Uncanny #217, an issue which doesn’t feature Wolverine at all? Well, it’s because I was already thinking about the book, and about how I didn’t want each entry to just be about that issue, but to kind of use that issue as a springboard to talk about something that applied to Claremont’s whole approach to writing the X-Men.

The big difference is that you have an unlimited word count with blog entries, and I (a bit like Mr. Claremont) can be pretty overly verbose. So when I first assembled all those blogs into a single word document in order to start piecing together the manuscript, the word count was insane. Just exponentially more words than a printed edition could contain. So it became a rigorous cutting job, and it took forever.

Eventually I had the manuscript cut down to being pretty slender, actually. Then, of course, I’d find some new interview online or some new cool article I’d never read before, and want to incorporate some of that information, so the word count went back up again. But while I didn’t want it to be a slog, I felt like I didn’t want to leave anything out and, given that the run is 16 years plus long, I was justified taking a more generous word count in discussing it. Hopefully Sequart doesn’t mind too much.

Why a book on Claremont's X-Men, and not, say, Peter David's Hulk or the Lee/Kirby Fantastic Four or the Mort Weisinger Superman? What is it about Claremont's writing that speaks to and inspires you?

I think no other comics writer besides Claremont – except maybe Alan Moore – has permeated my consciousness quite as deeply. I encountered his writing style, which is so distinctive, at the age of ten. And as you obviously understand, there is something about The X-Men that can really hook you, and make you want to kind of obsessively track it all down and read all of it, and learn how it all fits together. Nowadays that would mean going back and absorbing tons of writers, like Mike Carey, Morrison, Fabian Nicieza, Scott Lobdell, Chuck Austen, Matt Fraction, etc … back then, it kind of just meant Claremont. So as a kid in 1988, I was buying “Classic X-Men” reprints of the old Byrne era – which also had the John Bolton backups … while I was reading the new Silvestri stuff in the “Inferno” era, then loving Wolverine as a character so deciding to pick up his solo series and lo and behold, it’s also by Claremont … So I was obsessively reading this one author … and then when I got out of college I realized there were still huge gaps in my Claremont X-Men knowledge so I went out and read the missing years in between Paul Smith and Marc Silvestri, and the New Mutants and Excalibur, etc ….

There’s so much Claremont X-Men, and it’s like the gift that keeps on giving. I can’t remember, was it from you that I learned that the backup story in X-Men Annual #13 was by Claremont under a pseudonym? That was only two years ago or three years ago, and there I was still discovering new Claremont X-Men comics. There’s so much there to explore. [It was from me. :)]

Meanwhile I still am occasionally buying or reading other Claremont material … he was so prolific. It’s like his writing has always been there for me, for almost 30 years now.

As for what speaks to me about it … Quite a few things, as I suppose you’d guess. I love his command of language, and the poetic rhythm that he gives to his prose. His use of rhetorical flourishes. All those great classical devices with the fancy names, like anaphora (“Your choice. Your funeral.”) All those turns of phrase for which he’s become known, I find them lovely and evocative. “Their oldest, deadliest foes.” “Jean became one with a primal force of existence.” “Risking everything, on this single all-important roll of the dice.” Etc.

His lack of ironic distancing, or of any need to deconstruct or become metatextual. This is what sets him apart from writers like Moore or Morrison, or Gaiman, all of whom are obviously very good at writing comics, but who all tend to write superheroes (and other genres) in a very self-aware mode, reminding the audience that the fiction they’re reading is, yes, fiction. Claremont by contrast is extremely earnest. He treats his superhero characters with affection, thinks of them as real people, and just wants to tell their stories, rather than deconstruct them.

I like his juxtapositions: A superhero battle with all the fixings will often be set right before, or right after, a scene of two characters having a heart-to-heart in their civilian clothes, while they munch on a sandwich or eat a sundae. Claremont’s Magneto is depicted one issue as sinking a nuclear submarine and issuing ultimatums to the world via hologram, and in another he is sitting on a bed, folding laundry. I like that he will put the cosmic, high-stakes battles side-by-side with moments of simplicity, and normalcy.

What's missing from the book, or was condensed for space?

Since the whole “issue by issue” format wasn’t as big of a concern, I was occasionally able to take a whole batch of issues at a time and review them in a single space. This was good if it was a bunch of issues that, individually, didn’t sufficiently pique my analytical mind. (And some two-parters and three-parters are so much of a piece that it can seem absurd to tackle each issue individually, especially when you’re not doing an “issue by issue” blog that forces you to.) There were times on the blog where I looked at the original entry and thought, “Gah, I was really spinning my wheels on this one. This whole entry can go.” I’m sorry to tell you I didn’t have much to say about the Kulan Gath two-parter …

Any plans for a follow-up, or a similar book on a different creator/comic?

The ones you mentioned earlier would be good ones to do … Peter David’s Hulk, or Weisinger Superman. But this one has taken SO long to finish and finally get out there … I doubt I’ll do another one. “Never say never” of course … Another thing about Claremont is that there are so many obsessive X-Men fans who will read anything featuring the X-Men, even if they don’t like it, and so you have this strange phenomenon online of people hating on Claremont because in order to read the complete X-Men, you have to read so much of him. Of course, no one HAS TO, but sometimes I get a sense that people resent that Claremont wrote so much X-Men, thereby “forcing” them to read his work. And it’s led to an obsessive anti-Claremont wave, which is bemusing but also kind of sad. Most X-Men fans wouldn’t be X-Men fans if Claremont hadn’t made them into such a huge hit by writing his @$% off for a decade and a half, and I hate reading so much snideness about him online, the sites dedicated to mocking Claremontisms or whatever. So I wanted to put something positive out there, something that was aggressively pro-Claremont, as a kind of karmic balance.

Put short, I felt like the universe on some level was demanding that something like this exist. So .. I don’t know, maybe I will hear the Universe calling again, and write another one. But probably not. I have a lot of my own material that I want to write and get out there. It’s fun to analyze other people’s work, but part of me is more excited about getting my own stuff out there, and maybe eventually someone will analyze ME for a change, dag nabbit.

Who is you favorite X-Men character?

Magneto, of course. Started out as the one-dimensional villain, and was given an amazing new level by Claremont, and was always so perfectly poised as neither hero nor villain. Andrew Wheeler recently pointed out, Magneto is a great villain because, philosophically, he’s right. For those times when he joins the X-Men, it’s not like he has to “reform.” “He just reconfigures,” as Wheeler put it.

I also really love Rogue. If Magneto is my favorite Claremont re-creation, then Rogue is my favorite pure Claremont creation. She’s kind of the quintessentially perfect Claremont character to me, a beautiful woman with a power that she can’t control and which is an endless font of angst. John Byrne – in one of his countless swipes at Claremont – tried to say that Rogue was an example of how Claremont sacrifices common sense just for the sake of a character “bit.” In this case, Rogue’s angst over her uncontrollable power doesn’t make sense, when she lives in a universe where there are things like “power-inhibitor collars” and such. Why doesn’t she just wear a little bracelet that turns her power off?

Sure, Mr. Byrne. So I guess Lee and Kirby are also screw-ups on the common-sense front, what with their creating that Scott Summers guy …

What's your favorite Claremont "era" (however you choose to define it)?

The Outback, Uncanny 229 to 252. It took the X-Men as far away as Claremont ever dared to from their privileged status quo. No cushy mansion in a posh New York suburb, no rich white guy footing their bills … They were just all alone in a poor dusty ramshackle town on the far side of the world, with no creature comforts whatsoever, with their only guide and mentor being a disenfranchised native Australian.

Of all Claremont's varied artistic collaborators (pencilers, inkers, letterers, colorists, editors) through the years, who is your favorite?


I almost said Silvestri, because I came in during the Outback era and the “Inferno” stuff, and so the Claremont/Silvestri team has that nostalgic “My first love” quality … but I think I’d go with Claremont and John Bolton. Bolton illustrated all those lovely 12-page back-up stories that are so nice and simple and self-contained. Everything about those stories is marvelous, and so consistent and seamless. The lettering by Orz, and Bolton’s understated storytelling … Buoyed by those two, Claremont’s text just flows effortlessly. I think Claremont/Bolton did 22 of those together, and almost every one is a home run.

There’s some other great non-X-Men Claremont/Bolton stuff out there too: “The Black Dragon,” a comic-book, and then its prose (with illustrations) sequel, “Dragon Moon” (a copy of which I have signed by both Claremont and Bolton, and by Beth Fleisher who co-wrote with Claremont). They have a Red Sonja pastiche called “Marada the She-Wolf” as well. I wish they’d done more together.

Where and when [it's on sale now] can we buy the book?

Here is a link to Sequart, who is selling the book:

Thanks again to Jason for the interview, and be sure to buy the book!

10 comments:

  1. I’m sorry to tell you I didn’t have much to say about the Kulan Gath two-parter …

    ... the story which I personally consider to be the definite Spider-Man story. The one starring in Claremont's MARVEL TEAM-UPs was a classic and great iteration of the character, and here amidst the 80's bleak phase of Claremont's UNCANNY he totally steals the show from the X-Men (most of whom are somewhat reduced to statists for the story) by his perseverance in face of having for once been deprived of his story-mandated immortality and shows everyone that man without hope is man without... wait, no, this is wrong now somehow.

    But, all these other characters too that he has gotten his hands on just evaporate that classic Claremontness. Characters written by Claremont more or less step out from the pages like they were beautifully rounded 3D in a two-dimensional world.

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    1. And by "statists" I mean background actors, or "extras", as they apparently should be properly called in the English language.

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  2. Awesome! Jason, I recall reading all your posts at Remarkable some years ago (I think before I found Gentlemen of Leisure, even), and while I didn't always agree with your takes -- your cited favorite Claremont era is the polar opposite of mine (the Cockrum/Byrne years) -- I really enjoyed all those posts. I'll be grabbing the eBook version soon!

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    1. Thank you, Matt! And fear not, much love is given to the Cockrum/Byrne era. :)

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  3. Ah...the Claremont examinations! I printed all of them (along with the comments that were relevant) and usually take them with me in my annual vacation to Florida. Will it be printed in book form? Do they include your favorite list?

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    1. There is a paperback version, yes! No Top 20 list, though.

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    2. @Jason: The Kindle Paperwhite device isn't accessible for us blinkies, so wondering if you have it available for purchase in another digital format as I really wish to support and read?

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  4. Thanks for the interview and promotion, Austin!

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    1. Man you probably dont remember, but I was the Jeremy who bugged you for that top 20 list so many years ago lol. This is definitely a must-buy for me, I love these comics and I love your thoughts on them.

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