Image: Respect Films

Chris Claremont isn’t exactly sure just how many times Jean Grey and the Phoenix have returned from the dead, but when we spoke with the comics giant recently about the character’s impending return to Marvel’s books, he responded only with a heavy, slightly-annoyed sigh.

On some level, part of Claremont had to have known that when Jean Grey died in X-Men #137, it was only a matter of time before she was resurrected given that death and rebirth are kind of the whole point of Phoenixes. But during our conversation, Claremont emphasized an important point he makes all throughout Chris Claremont’s X-Men, an upcoming documentary about his comics career from filmmaker Patrick Meaney. Claremont explained that at the time, there had never been a comic book story arc quite like “The Dark Phoenix Saga,” and it was meant to shake the X-Men in a profound, lasting way that would have altered the course of their lives.

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To that end, “The Dark Phoenix Saga” was successful on both accounts—so much so that it played a huge in role in propelling the X-Men to almost unimaginable levels of fame and popularity. Between “The Dark Phoenix Saga” and introducing a new generation of mutants like Rogue, Mystique, Gambit, and Kitty Pryde, Claremont breathed new life into the X-Men that fundamentally transformed the series in a way we haven’t really seen since. From Claremont’s perspective, the thing that truly made the X-books shine during the 17 years he oversaw them was the collaborative, and sometimes combative spirit that was present between himself and his editors like Louise Simonson. He told io9:

“Every writer with half a brain knows to surround himself or herself with editors who are smarter, far more articulate, and infinitely better looking. All good communal storytelling comes from the sagas and arguments within the writers room. It’s not a tangible, quantifiable thing and I don’t try [to quantify it] because I can’t.

I was there. It happened. It must work—at least, it worked for me in that context at that time.”

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By the early ‘90s, Claremont’s run on the X-Men had become the stuff of legend, not just because of how popular his books were, but because of the sprawling, non-traditional stories and character development they ushered in. Whereas most comics tended to continuously recycle through a handful of plots that are slightly remixed to make them seem fresh (see: Secret Wars), Claremont firmly believed (and still does) that characters should continue to grow and evolve with forward-facing momentum:

“Creating a character [is] building a character, running through its life. That’s the writer’s job. You either have it or you don’t.

The advantage of being the creator of the character is I know them better than anybody, I like to think. But the reality one has to deal with in a serial collaborative medium like comics is that you’re not the only one who writes the character. On one level, all of the characters in Game of Thrones grow out of George R.R. Martin’s imagination. Therefore they are his. As long as they are in the novels they are his. But the moment they step forth onto the TV screen, they become filtered through the showrunners. In a business sense, it’s the same way with comics.”

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Claremont’s approach to treating characters like living, breathing people whose decisions come with long-lasting consequences isn’t at all the norm in most mainstream comics these days. But pivoting back to that might be precisely the jolt to the system that the comics industry needs at a time when sales are down. People loved Claremont’s X-Men because he loved them, something he demonstrated by handling them with respect, care, and purpose.

Chris Claremont’s X-Men, telling the story of Claremont, Anne Nocenti, and Louise Simonson, will be available on VOD February 6; it also includes interviews with Rob Liefeld, Marc Silvestri, and Claremont’s fans and you can get an exclusive look at it right here:

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