The X-Men Come Home to New York

May 12, 2012

When Chris Claremont began writing the "Uncanny X-Men" in 1975, he didn’t think the assignment would last very long. “We figured… we’re going to be cancelled in six months anyway. Let’s just have a lot of fun.”

Claremont, a renowned comic book writer who is credited with turning the "X-Men" into one of the biggest blockbusters in comics history, recently donated his archives to Columbia’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library. He was on campus to give the keynote at Comic New York, a two-day symposium held March 24 and 25 in Low Library, which brought together creators, academics and fans to celebrate the art of comics.

The conference focused on New York City’s history as the birthplace of the form and its role in the development of the writers and artists who created generations of superheroes as well as the political, alternative and academic nature of comics themselves.

“Whether you were reading the make believe worlds of 'The Yellow Kid,' 'Superman,' 'the Spirit' or 'Spider-Man,' or the graphically documented ones chronicled in the autobiographical work of Art Spiegelman, Dean Haspiel or Peter Kuper, New York City always takes stage as a central character in comics,” said Chris Irving, author of "Leaping Tall Buildings: the Secret Origin of American Comics" and a moderator at the symposium.

Al Jaffee, a 91-year-old cartoonist who created "Mad" magazine’s fold-in page and is still a regular contributor, said that the comic book industry began in New York because of the number of publishers in the city. “For those of us who would've liked to have done cartooning in the newspapers, getting into those places was near impossible,” he said. “But the burgeoning comic book industry had open arms."

Started in 1963, the "X-Men" were part of a stable of Marvel Comics superheroes that included "Spider-Man," the "Hulk" and "Captain America," but lacked the sales or popularity of those titles. Claremont’s first book, "Uncanny X-Men" #94, revived the series and his 1991 issue, "X-Men" #1, had a record eight million pre-orders according to Diamond Comics Distributors. By contrast, the best-selling comic book of the past decade, in which Spider-Man meets President Obama, sold over 500,000 units.

Claremont is also credited with developing strong female characters rather than what Karen Green, Columbia librarian for Ancient & Medieval History and Graphic Novels called the “puffed up pneumatic Barbie dolls” often featured in comics up to that point. When Claremont started his run on X-Men, he said, “there were no women characters worth the name.”

Claremont has not thrown anything away since he started writing in the mid-1960s. As a result, his archive contains 40 years of notes, manuscripts and plot outlines dating back to stories he plotted while attending Alfred G. Berner High School in Long Island. It’s possible to follow a story from gestation through editing to finished art.

Claremont, 61, expressed mixed feelings on giving up his collection, but with comic writers and artists, such as Spider-Man co-creator Stan Lee, in their eighties, there is a sense of urgency in trying to build up such archives quickly.

“Part of it was a sense of relief that everything was going somewhere where it will be dealt with a degree of responsibility and respect,” Claremont told The Record, after the panel.

The collection is the first from a creator of Claremont’s stature to reside in New York. “It’s sort of ridiculous that comics were born in New York and if you want to go to the archives, the best archives are at Michigan State and Ohio State,” said Jonathan W. Gray, a panelist and assistant professor at CUNY’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “This would be the equivalent to there being no film school in Los Angeles.”

—Story by Omar Kasrawi
—Video by Columbia News Video Team