2007’s MAX miniseries Wisdom was a fun and intelligent peek at the often overlooked British corner of the Marvel Universe, combining strong characterisation, big crazy comic book ideas, and a fascinating exploration of what Britishness itself means in the modern world. Unfortunately, despite universally glowing reviews, only about six people read it, as the majority of fandom seemed more interested in Iron Man punching Captain America. Now writer Paul Cornell is back for a second go, this time with an established costumed superhero on the cover and a big push from the Secret Invasion event, so Comics Bulletin’s Dave Wallace and Kelvin Green (two of the aforementioned six) had a chat with the writer about the new series.
Paul Cornell (PC): It’s the action-packed story of the branch of British Intelligence that deals with the weird stuff, the mad stuff, the superhero stuff. We start in the middle of London invaded by Skrulls, and don’t pause for breath. (You can tell I’m learning how to do these interviews, I hope. In the last one I did, one of the questions was “where’s it set?” and I replied “London and Northumberland.” That’s action-packed Northumberland). Alongside Cap are Pete Wisdom–whose business this sort of thing normally is–Spitfire, the Black Knight, John the Skrull from the Wisdom miniseries (a Skrull who’s spent the last four decades on Earth looking like John Lennon) and a new character called Faisa Hussain, who’s our point of entry character, our Kitty Pryde. And yes, we have plans for Captain Midlands.
CB: Wisdom was, to an extent, very much about Britishness, what it means to be British, and what Britain itself means today; what drew you to that approach, and do Pete’s conclusions match up with your own views on being British in the 21st Century?
PC: Yes. I think we look back to the past far too much, and don’t embrace the future, or hope in general, as much as we should. Pete’s burdened with events in his past, with choices he made, but he continually rises above it, keeps on going and does his duty. It’s one of my continuing themes.
CB: Meanwhile, Chris Claremont’s Excalibur used Britain more as set dressing. Your new series merges the two titles, so will it merge their approaches, or retain Wisdom‘s focus on the British character?
PC: It’ll still have some of that, but we’re also a widescreen all action superhero book, with a big dollop of espionage adventure, and, initially, wall to wall Skrulls. But an invasion is always good for showing off what Britishness is about. We’ve got a lot of different British voices in this book, from Spitfire’s brittle long view of history to Faisa’s optimism, to Pete’s head on charge to Brian’s nobility and strength of purpose.
CB: There are lots of familiar faces in the team, but what’s the story behind Faisa Hussein?
PC: She’s completely new, our point of entry character, our Kitty Pryde if you like. She appears in the first issue, working as a young doctor at a London hospital, after which she gets superpowers… and loves it! (I just wanted to write someone who can suddenly do all this great stuff and isn’t therefore immediately troubled and downcast.) Faisa’s the voice of someone very modern who loves communicating, natters away at high speed, and provides a kind of running commentary on what’s happening in her “agggh, agggh, how did I just do that?!” tone of voice. But she’s also the absolute heart and soul moral centre of the group, like Kitty was to Wolverine. I’ve just done an interview with an Essex radio station because her family comes from Chelmsford, which hasn’t previously been superhero central. So I think this character is really hitting British buttons already. She’ll get a codename when she thinks of one, which is going to be some fun later on. Her powers are completely new too, I think.
CB: As a British Muslim, Faisa is part of one of the most talked-about cultural groups in Britain right now; based on the musings on national identity we saw in Wisdom, is Faisa’s background part of this same line of enquiry?
PC: Sort of, in so much as everything I do is kind of about that. In many ways she represents Britishness in the story. It’s her family we meet, it’s her everyday folk that our heroes run into when they have to explain how come she’s suddenly a superhero. Mainly, I want her to be real person, identification figure first, and hot topic second. She isn’t carrying a flag for all British Muslims (because it’s me writing it, for one thing, and I don’t own that flag), but at the same time she’s not going to let anyone down. I’m talking to what I call my “oversight group” of wonderful British Muslim ladies, one of whose daughters is a young doctor, so I’ve got a safety net. But I honestly think it’s time for someone to be straightforward about this stuff, to just write the character, and put one’s heart and soul into it (because these point of view characters are always the ones a writer feels closest to), and make it obvious she’s not a caricature or an offensive sterotype, no more that Kitty was a Jewish stereotype, just because she’s our hero, you know, our touchstone. I think that obvious goodwill may be worth something.
CB: Is it inevitable that British superhero books have to have an element of humour to them, (self deprecating or otherwise)? It doesn’t seem as though we suit the clean-cut model of the superhero quite as readily as American characters might.
PC: I’m going to be going for more of the clean-cut model, because the previous situations, where Britishness seemed to equal twee humour, as if Monty Python were all we were, rather irritated me. Having said that, I write adventure with a lot of humour. Joss Whedon seems to be doing all right with that angle, eh? So John and Pete (and everyone else really) will get their witty lines.
CB: Who’s the leader of MI:13? If Brian (Captain Britain) is in charge, how’s Pete going to deal with that? He doesn’t seem the type to happily take orders from a big aristocratic blonde bloke wrapped in a flag.
PC: Pete’s in charge, but he’s doing okay at this whole leadership business now, and treats Cap with the respect due to a British icon. It’s like when Captain America wasn’t chairing the Avengers.
CB: Is the age-old British obsession with the class divide going to play a part in the relationship between Brian and Pete?
PC: Not really, I’m going past that a little. The two of them sort out a lot of their differences in the face of all out war, which naturally puts them on the same side. Mind you, in the heat of battle, and with no other choice but duty, Pete–whose karma is still well and truly in his socks–does something which might make the situation a bit more delicate later.
PC: We’ll get an immediate update about that. And shame on you!
CB: Samuel L. Jackson was famously quite chuffed (Americanese: “stoked”) by his appearances in The Ultimates as Nick Fury; have you heard from Paul and Ringo yet?
PC: Oh, I’d love that! I’m an enormous Beatles fan, and Paul was always my favourite. Do you reckon he’ll be reading this? No, seriously? What, every day?
CB: Do you have any plans to address Captain Britain’s puzzling inclusion in The Initiative, given that Britain’s not one of the fifty US states (yet)?
PC: British legislation along roughly the same lines as the Registration Act was passed at around the same time, but it was much more of a compromise, since the British aren’t used to viewing super heroes as a menace. Our version was more “join up and get official status and pay, or don’t join up and stay much as you are.” Cap does his bit for the government every now and then, and probably sees the Civil War as something he can see both sides of, but doesn’t apply much to him. I think he’d like to have a conversation with Peter Parker about it, as his oldest American friend.
CB: How much of the British corner of the Marvel Universe will we be seeing? Are we likely to see Chuck Austen’s Captain Britain, the Knights of Pendragon, Elsa Bloodstone, Union Jack or Motormouth and Killpower turning up?
PC: Not the first, because it’s too soon, but some of the others. I love the huge number of British Marvel characters I have to play with.
CB: What format is the book going to take? One thing we enjoyed about Wisdom was the way each issue functioned as a self-contained tale as well as moving subplots forwards for the larger six-issue story arc. Is an ongoing series going to give you the opportunity to take on longer-form stories, or will you still be striving for each issue to read as a complete experience in its own right?
PC: We’re doing definite multi-issue stories (the first one being the first four issues), that have subplots that make the whole first year a complete experience. There might be some one-off issues along the way.
CB: Have you had to consciously restrain yourself now that you’re not writing a “MAX” book. Has it been easy to switch to an all-ages title?
PC: I’m actually much more comfortable in standard Marvel mode. I think you can still do all the adult stuff you want to do, you just have to do it for a movie blockbuster rather than indie audience.
PC: I’m happy working just with Marvel for now. I’m loving working in comics, but telly, books, short stories and radio are grabbing loads of my time as well.
CB: How does it feel to be the latest British writer to invade the US industry? Do you feel any sort of weight of expectation since you’re following the likes of Moore, Morrison, Gaiman and Ellis?
PC: No, I am what I am, and that’s all I am! Although it’s nice that just being British means that one now has to avoid letting the side down!
CB: Having written long and short-form comics, television and novels, how do you differ your approach to the different mediums, if at all? What do you enjoy and dislike about the various formats?
PC: I’ll always love prose more than anything else, but comics have a vast freedom to them which I enjoy enormously. I like getting art in my inbox, and seeing what an artist’s done with my script. I love making striking individual panels that show up as internet icons and the like. I like the fact that it’s team work, but with a small team. And I love playing with these characters I grew up with.
CB: As well as elements from the British corner of the Marvel Universe, Wisdom drew from a more general pool of British mythology and pop culture (Martians, fairies, Jack the Ripper, etc). Any hints as to what other bits of British culture we might see in the new series?
PC: We’re immediately back amongst supernatural British mythology, and there’s going to be loads of it as we go. This is a widescreen book, a big book, and we’ve got a global angle going too, so look out for check-ins by all sorts of characters big and small. My aim is: read an issue and get it straight away and want the next. We’re not “that British book,” and we’re not whimsical and little, we’re huge kick arse (with an “r”) action, from the top, and then throughout, with loads of heart. I want cheering, that’s what I’m after. I want readers to actually punch the air, and laugh, and cry, because that’s what I’m doing when I’m writing it. Did I say that out loud?
CB: Well, if it’s half as good as Wisdom was, we’ll certainly be among those doing the cheering. Thanks very much for chatting with us!