Paul Cornell: A Close to Captain Britain and a Beginning for New Heroes

A comics interview article by: Dave Wallace
Paul Cornell is a man of many talents. A novelist and television writer, he is also a growing presence in the world of comics, with several Marvel titles under his belt and more projects on the horizon. On top of all that, he also makes time to regularly update his excellent blog at

Paul kindly took the time to talk with ComicsBulletin’s Dave Wallace, looking back on Captain Britain & MI-13 and giving us the lowdown on some of his upcoming projects.

Dave Wallace: This week saw your book Captain Britain & MI-13 come to an end. I don’t want to get bogged down in the reasons why the series was cancelled, but I would like to discuss your thoughts on the book now that it’s all over.

What were your goals with this series? Is there any particular scene or specific character that you can point to as something that you’d always wanted to do with the book?

Paul Cornell: Faiza, obviously, presenting a religious character who isn’t defined by their religion. Giving her Excalibur, consciously putting her at the heart of British folklore. I had in mind her killing Dracula with that sword before I started writing issue one. I’ve already spoken at length about putting Brian back together, and getting him back together with Meggan was another long term plan, as was giving her some oomph. What was wrong with that marriage was that, somehow because she was a wife, she was always portrayed as a doormat. That doesn’t happen with Sue Richards, so I’m at a loss to explain why it happened here. Maybe because the shape of her powers suited it. Now, put her and Brian together and you get a virtuous circle: the need for confidence and the ability to provide it, the need for affirmation and the ability to provide it. I’ve heard those two are pretty deadly in the Millarworld forum’s Superhero Fantasy League now!

DW: Everyone seems to have a favourite element of the book. For me, Faiza’s relationship with Dane is one of the most successful to have been developed over the course of the series, but I’d be interested to know what you regarded as the heart of the book, and the driving force behind its creation.

PC: Brian and Pete’s friendship, because it shows we got past some sort of clichéd class warfare thing and into the business of two professionals acting treating each other with professional respect. It’s obvious that I adore Pete, and most of the plots happen through him, and Brian’s like his more noble older brother. I think Pete would always do his best to make sure Brian never had to do anything ignoble: that’s his job.

DW: On the other hand, are there any elements of the book that you felt didn’t quite achieve their full potential over the course of the series? Is there anything you would have done differently if you had known from the beginning that the series was going to end when it did?

PC: I’d probably have made ‘Hell Comes to Birmingham’ more action-packed and widescreen. Maybe taken them straight to the USA then and done that instead. Our audience really left at issue four, with the Secret Invasion banner. People protest about events, but try and write a comic now without them. The audience is actually more concerned with what’s going on, with the big news, than they are with story. I’d be part of an event every issue if I could, if it meant I could keep the title going.

DW: Talking of which, can you give us any hints on where you might have taken the book’s characters in future, had the title continued? For example, would the other British characters that make a surprise guest-appearance in issue #15 have been made regular supporting characters? Would we have seen Brian’s relationship with his wife develop further, or was that reunion something that you were always saving until your final issue on the book?

PC: I think that splash page of characters could only happen in a final issue. We nearly had Tangerine pop up earlier, but after Birmingham I realised that the only way the book would survive would be huge event stories of our own, and forgotten characters had to go by the wayside. The rest of them might have popped up as supporting cast every now and then. But oddly, not Death’s Head, because the character isn’t actually British! I wanted to save Digitek and do that Mandarin joke, that’s why they’re there! All we talked about for possible future storylines was the possibility of a Secret Warriors crossover (I don’t think that even got as far as asking Jonathan), and maybe a story involving Rachel and the Fury. That’s literally every word we said about that. And Brian/Meggan would have been an ongoing part of the book, because that’d be the real challenge, showing that as doable on a long term basis.

DW: That would have been very satisfying to see. And I would have loved to see your take on the Fury.

One of the most significant underlying elements of the book seems to have been the exploration of the British national identity, whether it’s the collective subconscious fantasy realm that we saw in the first “Secret Invasion” arc, the hopes and fears that we saw manifested in the second arc (“Hell Comes To Birmingham”), or the WWII mentality that we’ve seen you touch upon in the final arc, “Vampire State”. Was it a conscious decision to use the book to explore these areas of the British psyche, or something that happened more organically, given the British setting?

DW: It’s just one of those things I often do. I’m fascinated by nation states; and Britain in particular. I don’t think they’re going away. I’m not sure if that’s good or bad. I’m deeply British and love Britishness and am deeply frustrated by it and loathe it at the same time, which is I think the condition of being British. I get the feeling I’d prefer to be one of those people who prefer to view their own culture from the safe distance of, say, New York. Both my old novels and a lot of the short stories are about Britishness.

DW: Did you ever worry that the UK-based elements would make the book less accessible for American readers? The closing pages of issue #15 explicitly refer to the book’s distinctly British qualities, and there have been a lot of in-jokes that would probably be missed by non-British readers, but I never got the sense that these would be a barrier to non-UK audiences.

PC: The closing pages of fifteen are the place to do that! I always knew that Nick [Lowe, editor of Captain Britain & MI-13] would tell me if I did anything an American wouldn’t get. I like to think I pitch the injokes so if you don’t get them you don’t notice there’s anything there. I mean, O is just a character who talks like that. (I sent Nick and Leonard a YouTube video of all the times on film Charles Hawtrey says ‘hello’.) I always wanted to include the US audience completely. I don’t actually think it radiates British book. I think maybe taking the team to the States early on might have been a really good idea.

DW: One advantage of the British setting, though, was the freedom that it gave you in terms of broad-strokes storytelling. Despite being part of the shared Marvel Universe, the UK of Captain Britain isn’t an area that features heavily in most of Marvel’s books. This allowed you to get away with moments like the end of issue #13 (which had me genuinely convinced that you were killing off half of the book’s cast -- as well as most of the British government -- and turning the UK over to Dracula!) as well as some surprising character deaths (I still mourn the passing of John the Skrull). Was it refreshing to have that much freedom with the book, and to truly be able to “kill your darlings” if you so desired?

PC:That’s entirely the joy of it! We could have really done that! Me and Nick had a long conversation about who Marvel would want to keep in play if we had really done that, and so the ‘deaths’ are pitched like that, so it looks like it could be really happening, with Blade and Cap definitely surviving, and the Black Knight seeming like he could. We thought Pete was right on the edge of what we might have got away with. I loved the freedom of it, not really in terms of killing characters, but of having my own corner of the universe to play in. But that comes at a price, of course.

DW: Do you know of any plans for the book’s cast to make further appearances in other Marvel books? The team already made a couple of cameo appearances in Dan Slott’s Mighty Avengers. Was that something that Dan discussed with you, or was that more something that came from the books’ editors?

PC: Dan and I had a chat about that at the Dublin convention, so it was his idea. I’d love to see any of this lot show up in that book, which as a kind of international Avengers, would definitely be a suitable home for them. And I love Dan’s work. But I don’t know if he has any plans.

DW: Die-hard followers of the series would still love to give the book a second chance by driving up sales of the collected editions. Hypothetically, if the book’s fans got their fondest wish and the characters were brought back to comics in some shape or form, would you be interested in returning to write them again? Or do you feel as though your story is complete with the end of issue #15?

PC: I’d be back like a shot. But honestly, it’s hard to see how much more support Marvel could give the book. I see fans being very kind but rather fooling themselves about that: Marvel gave me every inch of help they could, and then a bit more. We are seriously talking beyond the call of duty. I think the only way to make the book work in this sales climate would be an entirely different platform. Myself, I’d love to do a warm, funny, friendly book like Claremont and Davis’ Excalibur, but the audience just isn’t there for whimsy. Me and Nick have said we’ll keep talking: it was his idea to bring these characters back, and if we get the chance, we will.

DW: Captain Britain hasn’t been your only work at Marvel. In addition to past projects like the Fantastic Four: True Story miniseries and Captain Britain and MI-13 forerunner Wisdom, you’ve written a story for Dark X-Men -- and you’re also still working on the Dark Reign: Young Avengers miniseries. Again, you’ve used this book to introduce plenty of new faces to the Marvel Universe, but this time it’s in a title that’s far more closely tied to current MU continuity. Has that been a different experience to working on the relatively isolated Captain Britain?

PC: They’re all different. Different genres, characters, ways of telling the stories. That’s why working for Marvel is so rewarding: you can use lots of different voices. I’m very pleased with all of them, but I think Young Avengers and Black Widow are amongst the best things I’ve written.

DW: I’ll be very keen to read your upcoming Black Widow miniseries. What can we expect from it? The Black Widow is a character who has connections with many different areas of the Marvel Universe, having been an important supporting player in many different titles as well as having her own successful series of solo adventures. Is your new origin story going to touch on many of these relationships (the likes of Daredevil, Nick Fury, Iron Man, the Avengers, and Bucky have all intersected with her in meaningful ways in the past – as has Yelena Belova, the second Black Widow), or is this going to be more focused on her as a solo character?

PC: I’ve just done about eight interviews about that, so, with the caveat that I’m hugely enthusiastic about it, please can I not repeat myself again? I refer my learned colleagues to various websites, ta! Oh, but I’d like to say I really regret saying Natasha lived in Los Angeles in her Daredevil days, when of course it was San Francisco! And I’ve only just read those! Brain typo.

DW: One thing that I would be interested to know, given that many of your previous projects have been team books, is whether a solo title like Black Widow necessitates a different writing approach to an ensemble book?

PC: Yes, very much so. I like team books a lot, but there’s more room to breathe on a solo title. I hope to be able to do a lot of both.

DW: Also, I’m interested to know whether Richard K. Morgan’s two recent Black Widow miniseries are going to factor into your version of Natasha’s history? They made some fairly significant additions to the Black Widow’s origin story.

PC: Yes. That’s all onboard. As always, my approach is: it all happened.

DW: Finally, how are things coming along with your new novel? What can you tell us about it?

PC: I’m aiming to be finished in five working days! I’m just going back over it and polishing here and there. Usually in scenes where I’ve just put all the bits on the floor and left them for later assembly. Don’t know what it’s called yet. It’s The Sweeney do Buffy. I’m very pleased with it, but let’s not count our chickens.

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