Someone recently asked me to name my top five mutants, and I surprised myself by rattling off the names of four female characters before I got to, yes, the one I am supposed to say: Wolverine.
That I picked women first shouldn’t be surprising to anyone who has ever read an X-Men comic. Since its reinvention in the mid-'70s, the team has had a roster of fascinating female characters. It’s probably one of the only big-name superhero comic books that could pass the Bechdel test.
Not that you would know that from the film franchise. Storm is tragically miscast. Rogue shares only the skunk-streak and soul-sapping powers of her sassy comic-book namesake. Jean Grey’s character arc is completely dismantled. Kitty Pryde makes little more than a cameo.
This is, of course, Hugh Jackman’s fault. As the X-Men’s resident alpha dog and one of Marvel comics’ most popular characters, it was inevitable that Wolverine would become the focus of the movies, which not only need to get boys buying tickets, but buying action figures afterward. It is regrettable that female X-Men take a backseat, but sadly expected. At the very least, we can take solace in the fact that it’s at the expense of highlighting a legitimately interesting character like Logan, and not a lame one, like Gambit.
Big-budget films also have many cooks in the kitchen. (Another diss: If the X-Men were celebrity chefs, Gambit would be Guy Fieri.) But, from 1975 to 1991, there was really only one cook in the kitchen of Professor Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters, and that was Chris Claremont.
In 1975, Claremont was a self-described “young punk sitting on the bleachers, passing out advice along the way” when writer Len Wein was relaunching X-Men, then Marvel’s lowest-selling title, with an entirely new cast of characters. Wein was reassigned after a few issues, and Claremont was called to the plate. The playing field was wide open, as this mostly new slate of characters had little or no backstories or origins (and no real expectations of success), allowing Claremont free rein to create.
“The paradigm in comics back then was teams were basically four or five men and one girl. And, the fact that it was one girl was emblematic of the reality of the time,” Claremont says. In this case, that one female leftover from the original team created by legendary duo Stan Lee and Jack Kirby back in 1963, was Jean Grey. A teenager with telekinetic powers, she sported the fairly generic code name “Marvel Girl” along with boots, minidress, and a mask. In these early appearances, she was little more than an object of desire for the male characters, who fall all over themselves to impress the new girl at school. (Sample dialogue from the first issue courtesy of Angel, a rich kid with birdlike wings: "She has one very obvious power...the power to make a man's heart beat faster!")
In Claremont’s hands, Jean's powers were not only brought up to the same level as the male characters, but beyond, as she became Phoenix, the most powerful being in the galaxy [although not quite the strongest one there is].
“[The team] needed an element of balance and that catalyzed around Jean," Claremont explains. "We did a complete makeover on her. She was no longer this sort of very preppy, Republican, restrained ‘oh my gosh she looks like she just stepped out of Neiman Marcus’ figure, and bear in mind, we’re talking about the early '70s — she looked hip. So, by visually re-establishing her as a more independent and dynamic figure, we began the journey down the road to Phoenix.”
As radical as this was at the time, it was a no-brainer for Claremont. And, it was only the beginning, as he would eventually dismantle the four-guys-and-a-girl equation completely. “My attitude basically was, I have known a tremendous number of very courageous, very independent, very no-holds-barred, no-foolin’ women, starting — cliché as it sounds — with my mom, who spent her college years in the Royal Air Force as part of a radar station on the south coast of England, which was visited every morning by the Luftwaffe, who were inclined to leave a great many souvenirs.” After WWII, Claremont’s mother went on to study at Cambridge and the London School of Economics and worked as a social worker with orphaned survivors of the Blitz for almost 10 years.
Claremont also drew inspiration from other women in his life, especially a journalist friend who he heard deliver a radio report while under fire in a war zone. “I look at their lives and none of them are shy, withdrawn, secondary people. They are fierce, intelligent, courageous, gifted, heroic — in many respects — members of the community. And, I figured, ‘Heck, my job as a writer is to give them a presence in my work, which is the X-Men.’”
This approach worked, breathing new life into the book, which became one of the best-sellers in the industry, eventually reaching a readership of around 500,000 per issue, easily a quarter of whom were women [!!!], “and very passionate,” notes Claremont. "This was always a book that appealed to a wider and more varied audience than you’re used to finding in comics. And, to my mind, that was always one of the things that I certainly had to be aware of and acknowledge, that we had a broader base, and that I had to justify that base by doing the best stories I knew how."
One of those stories was The Dark Phoenix Saga, which told the tale of Jean Grey's corruption and eventual sacrifice. A collaboration between Claremont and artist John Byrne, it is rightly considered one of the most famous comic book stories of all time, focusing on Grey's struggle to contain and control her rapidly expanding powers while preventing harm from coming to her family and friends. It’s a masterpiece and the most famous X-Men story of all time. But, you wouldn’t know that from the movies.
Much has been said about the demerits of X3: The Last Stand, but to say that it’s even loosely based on the Dark Phoenix Saga — a multi-issue arc that traversed not only the depths of Jean Grey’s soul, but also actual galaxies — is a travesty. It’s akin to saying that a movie with a character who likes to throw parties is loosely based on The Great Gatsby. “One of the frustrating elements of X-Men 3 is that it’s Jean’s story and all she does for most of the film is stand around and stare until she melts everybody, and then Logan kills her.”
Such is the treatment of the X-Women in Hollywood. The other female team members have not fared much better. Jean’s death left a vacuum that allowed Claremont to bring forward a number of other female characters who were in the background, especially Ororo Munroe, a.k.a. Storm.
“Ororo was wholly independent. She was considered by the people in her neighborhood in east Africa a goddess, or the functional equivalent of a goddess, and that’s how they treated her. So, that was a breath of — I guess pardon the cliché — fresh air in the superhero paradigm of the X-Men. But, more to the point, you have the aspect of her being African, a woman, a self-possessed woman, albeit somewhat shy, which immediately made her a more dynamic and independent figure than we were used to seeing.”
By the '80s, a punked-out version of Storm — complete with head-to-toe leather and a mohawk — would replace Cyclops as team leader. Making a black woman the lead character in a top-selling title was bold, but par for the course for Claremont. Back in 1999, fans bemoaned the news that Halle Berry would play her onscreen with the consensus among Internet users being that Angela Bassett would be the only actress who could properly convey Storm’s regal gravitas. (That Bassett was the only other name bandied about speaks to a larger problem than we have time for here.) Despite Berry’s tepid portrayal, the one-time team leader has had very little to do in the films anyway.
While Jean and Ororo weren’t completely Claremont creations, another popular pair were: Rogue and Kitty Pryde, both of who joined the school for different reasons, but served as entry points for new readers.
Kitty is a genius from Chicago who could never really settle on a proper code name or costume. She can walk through walls, has a pet alien dragon named Lockheed, and — in an alternate timeline — eventually becomes the first mutant president. (The fact that she’s Jewish and a woman are probably also presidential firsts, but Claremont let the mutant metaphor do the talking.) Another of the most popular characters, she hasn’t been given much to do onscreen, even after recasting Ellen Page in the role for X3. The upcoming Days of Future Past is based on another famous Claremont/Byrne story that centers on her character, and it’s very likely that, once again, Page won’t be given much to do there either, as trailers seem to have transposed Wolverine into the center of the story, which should be surprising to no one.
I asked Claremont if he was aware of how many readers around the same age as the teenage Pryde had a crush on the character (including, I'm not ashamed to say, this writer). “Oh yeah,” he says, “that was the point.”
“[Kitty] was the entry character in the late '70s, Jubilee became the entry character in the late '80s. There should be gradual but profound change with a series as it moves along to give each generation of readers a chance to bond with characters uniquely their own, rather than having to settle for the same half dozen or dozen people that my Dad used to read. I’ve got ones of my era, my culture, my reality, who I can be possessive of, and ideally, it makes the book that much more enticing to a broader and more lasting audience than otherwise.”
Kitty’s diminished presence in the films is due to changes made to Rogue, whose character has been radically modified to make her the school-age entry character. (In the comics, the runaway Southern belle is taken in by Mystique, joining her Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. But, her powers couldn’t be controlled, so Mystique handed the girl she loved as a daughter over to her greatest enemy, Professor X, even though she knew that in process, they might become foes. A more interesting origin than in the movies? Definitely.)
The villainous Mystique, however, has been given new life onscreen, and Claremont isn’t surprised that she’s become the most recognizable woman in the cast. “It’s hard to really argue with somebody who’s painted blue and stark naked. The impression onscreen is ‘holy cow!’ She looks badass and has a lot more to do — and a lot more fun doing it — than sadly either Jean or Ororo got a chance to.”
It is a sad irony that the X-Women don’t get more screen time given that females in superhero comic books are traditionally damsels in distress or damsels in states of undress, and Jean, Ororo, and Kitty are neither. It is sadder still given that the mutants’ persecution is a metaphor of bigotry, a detail that’s lost on many Internet trolls who don’t understand that misogyny falls within its fetid boundaries. Maybe this is why the X-Women are better than the men. They have fights on multiple fronts.
I asked Claremont what he thought. “Part of the reason that women are a more empathetic point of contact in these circumstances is that mutants are fundamentally a story of oppression and the fight against oppression. And, the heartbreak of the modern age is that women and girls are too often the object of that oppression. If you need an example, all you have to do is look at the news from Nigeria," he says, referencing the audacious, sinister kidnapping of hundreds of schoolgirls by terrorist group Boko Haram — an event that could easily be reinterpreted for an X-Men storyline. "I mean, if that isn’t the real-world basis for a superhero-supervillian confrontation that brings the point home to a broader audience who might not be paying attention to the front pages of a newspaper, then what is?”
Indeed, that particular mission sounds like a job for the X-Women. And, no, they don't need to bring Wolverine.
Art by Kevin Wada
Forever bitter at the piss-poor cinematic renditions of these queens. Also, reminder that the Chris Claremont documentary, 'Comics in Focus,' was just released.