How an X-Men writer inspired binge-worthy, character-driven TV from Buffy to Game of Thrones

Over at The Conversation, there’s a story called How an X-Men writer inspired binge-worthy, character-driven TV from Buffy to Game of Thrones. It’s an interesting piece and well worth the read, claiming that “our current golden age of TV storytelling is influenced by comic books, in particular, one writer: Chris Claremont pushed boundaries and gave audiences strong female leads and deeply involved dramas.”

I think this is true, to an extent. The article says “Claremont’s growth of writing style was rooted in an interest in character over plot.” To me, this makes sense. Stories are about characters and plot is merely what they do. I remember having a conversation with Marvel TV back in the late 90s. I was there with my former production partner, an actor, and we were talking about having him star in some sort of TV show. As he was African-American, there were a few established characters he could have portrayed, or, they suggested, we could come up with a new character and they would come out with a comic book while we were in production on the show to drum up support. Either approach seemed fine to us. 

As the conversation continued, however, it turned to Ghost Rider, my favorite character. This was years before Mark Steven Johnson would make the travesty of a film starring Nicolas Cage (although his name was attached to the project, even then). Johnson wanted to do it as a TV series and, as the development exec explained to us, it would be difficult. “It’s expensive to do the transformation,” he said. “So we’d really need to focus on the character and not so much on the effects.” Sure, this was 20 years ago, but it struck me that, as a writer and creator, I’d want to focus on the character more, anyway.

It was probably around this same time that Michael Eisner, the CEO over at Disney, was feeling the pinch from that upstart animation company Pixar. At the time, Eisner said that he would remake all of Disney’s classic animated films using CG, since that’s what the audience was responding to. Like the guy at Marvel, he completely missed the point that with Pixar, it wasn’t (and still isn’t) about the technology. It’s about the characters and their stories

All of which comes back to Clairmont and his approach to comic writing. I think, certainly, the seeds were sown with Stan Lee‘s idea of setting all his heroes in the same world and allowing them to interact and affect each other, but then he took it that huge leap forward. And then this style of storytelling struck a nerve. This idea that the characters we write about, the ones we want to see as they learn and change and grow, was picked up and adapted by television writers to give us a complex and rich storytelling landscape. Difficult Men, by Brett Martin, explores these ideas as well, that no matter the situations which surround them, it’s the characters themselves, and they react to their circumstances, which makes for the most compelling drama. 

For me, I love it. I think this idea of an 8-13 episode season, the duration known in advance, gives the creators the ability to create a noTVel (still working on name for the form), a way of building compelling characters, allow them to come into the world of the story, grow and change as they need to in reaction to the events and circumstances present, and then reach a new equilibrium which may or may not lead to a second, or more, season. This is far more satisfying than stretching out plot lines in a 22-24 episode season, with a cliff-hanger ending in the hopes of getting picked back up to continue the story-line. 

I like the direction televised story-telling is heading, and if we have Chris Clairmont to thank for that, great! I was a big fan of his X-Men work back then and I’m looking forward to re-reading it soon. 

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