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Paul Cornell: From the Doctor to the New Avengers

A comics interview article by: Geoffrey D. Wessel
Paul Cornell may be a name that’s still relatively new for Marvel Comics readers, but in fact he has been a prolific creator for Doctor Who for almost 20 years. Cornell’s works for that series has encompassed 2 Hugo-nominated TV stories (“Father’s Day” in the first season, and the two-part “Human Nature” + “The Family of Blood” from the third), novels (including the one adapted to become “Human Nature”), audio dramas, and even the first animated Doctor Who story, the webcast “The Scream of the Shalka.”

But Cornell is no stranger to comics, having written for Doctor Who Magazine and the serials “Pan-African Judges” & “XTNCT” for 2000AD. After making his Marvel debut with the miniseries Wisdom for the MAX mature-readers line, Cornell followed that up with the acclaimed Captain Britain & MI:13, which in a short time has amassed a devoted following, and is routinely considered one of Marvel’s best current titles.

Geoffrey D. Wessel had the chance to sit down with Cornell talk Cap, Wisdom, the Doctor, fandom, rumors, and so much more -- even a little tease about the recently announced Dark Reign: Young Avengers!

[WARNING: POTENTIAL SPOILERS FOUND WITHIN.]

Geoffrey D. Wessel: Your initial comics work was for Doctor Who Magazine and 2000AD before coming over to Marvel with Wisdom and Captain Britain + MI:13. What have been some of the major differences between working for Joe Quesada and “Tharg?”

Paul Cornell: Back then Tharg was David Bishop, but goodness, there was just a very long gap between the two. I didn’t work in comics for a very long time between the two. There was also Alan Barnes editing XTNCT for Judge Dredd Magazine. I primarily work for Nick Lowe on Captain Britain + MI:13 and Tom Brevoort on Fantastic Four: True Story, and every editor has their own personality. Nick is very bouncy and enthusiastic and fills you with enthusiasm; and Tom is very stern, sage, careful and sensible. I’ve enjoyed every editor I’ve worked under basically.

GW: Mark Millar says he was the one who directly brought you in to Marvel, is that the case?

PC: Absolutely! I got an email from Mark after “Human Nature” had aired asking if I’d like to write for Marvel Comics, which was one of the better emails of my life! I’d been trying vaguely to get in and had a couple of small contacts with Marvel and DC editors before, but that was really what opened the door.

GW: Did you know going in to Wisdom that the story you told was going to parlay itself to what was initially New Excalibur, but later became Captain Britain + MI:13?

PC: Not at all, I thought that was the end to it! That’s why it had everything I wanted to do with Marvel Comics in 6 issues, because I didn’t think I’d ever get another go. Basically, MI:13 was what it was originally going to be called, so Nick had the idea in place. After Wisdom, he basically said, “Let’s have another go this way.”

GW: Do you think that CB+MI13 is better for not being so tied to the X-Men line as it would have been had it remained New Excalibur?

PC: Well it’s 6 of one half a dozen of the other really, I mean, it would have still featured the same characters, who by and large were the cast of Excalibur towards the end anyway, we certainly have 3 of them. It was really about refreshing the title because the Excalibur name had been used quite often in the previous few years, so it was about signaling a new approach. And I think that’s been quite successful actually. I think we had a bigger launch than had we been Excalibur.

GW: Do you think the initial 4 issues being so tied to Secret Invasion helped the title get off the ground, or do you think it may have turned off some readers who may have ignored the book just because it WAS so tied to a big event book they may not have any interest in?

PC: No, I think actually we benefitted HUGELY from it, certainly in terms of sales. There’s a dichotomy between comics fandom who say that being part of a big crossover event is a bad thing, and the people who buy comics, who, judging by the way they buy comics PREFER things to be in big crossover events, so I think those two groups should talk. Or perhaps fight! At any rate, I’m very pleased we had that, it gave us a tremendous amount of publicity and sales. And indeed, a really good shape for our first story, I really benefitted from that!

GW: There was a controversy from a Newsarama interview where an interviewer asked a question as it regarded the character Faiza that came across as extremely Islamophobic. What were your feelings about that, did you expect that sort of reaction from people regarding her?

PC: I think it was just badly phrased on the part of an interviewer who is pushed for time, is overworked, who basically was just translating his house style into a series of questions. Now, with that particular question, his house style came over really badly! But, you know, he realized that pretty quickly I think. It’s easy to pick on people for “isms,” I’d rather reserve for the people who really thoroughly deserved it, not for somebody who stumbled into it. There have been surprising reactions on a few blogs, and I sometimes have popped up and called them about it. In the main, I think there has been a positive reaction about her. Actually, it’s the homophobia of comics fans that gets to me more than the racism. There isn’t as much racism as maybe I would have expected in some ways, but it’s still quite a homophobic hobby! I’m following a thread on CBR at the moment where people are saying things that would startle me in polite company!

GW: Over the years you’ve become one of the elder statesmen of modern Doctor Who, with novels, TV episodes… do you think you have any stories left to tell for Doctor Who?

PC: I’m always going to be up to telling stories for Doctor Who in any shape or form whenever asked, really! I think it’s because it’s about fashion, Doctor Who always manages to renew itself and come at itself from a different angle, and there’s always something from the past of Doctor Who that you can comment upon. And it’s just so huge it keeps on rolling. So, I think it refreshes itself. I don’t think any Doctor Who writer will want for material.

GW: Did you ever think any of your episodes would be nominated for Hugo awards?

PC: I was really surprised and pleased. I remember attending Eastercon in Glasgow, and being told “No we don’t think your Doctor Whos would be the sort of thing to get Hugo nominated,” and that Doctor Who in general wouldn’t be Hugo nominated. If we win a 4th time this year, we will have equaled the greatest number of Hugo wins for any TV series, which is held by all forms of Star Trek put together! So I think we surprised a lot of people, certainly it surprised me to be nominated! My two Hugo pins from the nominations are my proudest possessions. This is the award I compete for, this is the center of my world, really.

GW: Do you have any plans to contribute anything to the series under Steven Moffat?

PC: Well if asked, of course I will!

GW: What was the experience of adapting Human Nature the novel into the episodes “Human Nature” & “The Family of Blood” for TV like?

PC: It was an enormous experience. I started out very different from the novel, because I’d figured Moffat had already done the romance story with “The Girl In The Fireplace,” so I kind of started way in, with Smith [The humanized Doctor – ed.] and Joan living together as husband and wife, but Russell [T. Davies, outgoing Doctor Who producer] kept saying “No, push it back towards the novel, let’s do the novel,” so we finally ended up with something close to a straight adaptation, which I was very pleased with.

GW: Was it strange going back over 10 years after the fact of writing the novel, and changing one of the most popular New Adventure novels into one of the most popular TV episodes?

PC: I guess? I hadn’t read it in that time, so some of the shape of the story was a surprise to me. I always forget my own stuff really quickly. Of course, there were an awful lot of subplots in the book that needed to be hacked out because they’d been done elsewhere, or they weren’t really relevant, or they took up too much screen time. I think the main addition, Russell’s biggest idea, was adding the scarecrows because we needed a monster that would be an obvious monster in Episode 1, before the Family showed their own monstrousness. And he simply said “How about some scary scarecrows?” which seemed to be a good idea.

GW: One of the more interesting contributions you’ve made to Doctor Who lore was the ORIGINAL 9th Doctor for the 40th Anniversary webcast “The Scream of the Shalka”…

PC: It’s a strange thing to look back at now, people have been mentioning it a lot the last few months! I’ve just had, right before Christmas, a friend of mine at the BBC, they still had the huge cardboard stand-ups of the Doctor and the Master from that in the BBC, so rather than chuck them on to the bonfire she used the internal post system to get them moved to my local radio station run by the BBC, and I went down to pick them up, so I’ve now them standing in the corner of my room. It was an interesting thing with “Shalka,” we really did the best we could at the time under the restrictions we were given. That is to say, the BBC wanted something that people wouldn’t have to wait to download, they wanted something they could see live on their computers back in the days when bandwidth was a lot smaller than it is now. The animators [Cosgrove-Hall Productions – ed.] won an award for pushing Flash animation as far it could possibly go on that. But still, looking at it these days, technology’s just gone past it, you know, and it looks very crude I think. The size of the story we could tell was quite limited too. And I’m proud of what we did. I think Richard [E. Grant, the actor who voiced the animated Doctor – ed.] was full of energy, poured himself into it, but you know, I’m like everybody else; I’m pleased live-action Doctor Who came back and made it a footnote.

GW: At the time, however, this animated Doctor was announced as being the actual, real, official new Doctor, and then just before it was released the new series was announced with Christopher Eccleston as the official 9th Doctor.

PC: As far as the BBC knew, that was the case at the time!

GW: Did you feel like it ended up being a waste of time after the new series was announced?

PC: Nothing like that is ever a waste of time. There is no canon in Doctor Who, so anything one contributes is worthwhile.

GW: Did you have any plans to revisit that animated Doctor at the time?

PC: Yeah, we had a full format for future adventures! Simon Clark, the writer of Night of the Triffids, the official Day of the Triffids sequel, was down to write the second serial, and it was on the verge of going into production when the boom came down. We had a game plan worked out for where it would all go, which I may show the world one day, if I can find it!

GW: Will any stories that were planned for this Doctor ever be adapted for other formats?

PC: I’ve actually already used one, my short story in the 2006 Doctor Who Annual , “The Masks of Makassar.”

GW: You’re also working on your third original novel. Has it been more rewarding working on your own creations rather than ones owned by Marvel, the BBC, Rebellion…?

PC: That’s the thing, I’m continually trying to get back to the novel, and I’m continually being pulled away by the commitments! So, this year I’ve told myself I’ll finish off everything else I have to do, and not pick up anything new, and just write the novel. Except something nice has already come along and derailed me from that! Still, hopefully this summer I will be writing the novel most of my days, which will be delightful. It’s a different sort of satisfaction, really. I have to prove to myself that I can get a new novel together, one that I’m really proud of. I think the first two [Something More; British Summertime – ed.] are mad, and awkward, and strange, and everything in the kitchen sink, and go off in all directions. But they’re not that big “25 words or less” I’m looking for, and that’s what I’m doing this summer.

GW: So, what’s next for Captain Britain + MI:13?

PC: Well, the next arc of CB+MI13 is the Dracula arc, which we’re in the middle of writing now. It’s a spy game of Dracula v. Pete Wisdom. Dracula has allies, and a plan to take over Britain, and he’s a long way into this plan, which he’s planted seeds of way back in the Cap title. This is our 6-issue arc, which starts next issue. I’m very excited about it, I’m having a fabulous time. Leonard [Kirk]’s artwork is terrific as always. It’s also nice to have fill-in artwork every now and again for a couple of pages by Mike Collins, who draws the Doctor Who Magazine comic strip quite often these days, he also did the artwork for my Daily Telegraph Doctor Who Christmas story last year. So it’s a pleasure to be working with those guys. We’re just having a fantastic time with it; it’s Dracula as master strategist, which I don’t think has been seen for some time!

GW: The resolution to the most recent issue of Captain Britain + MI:13 took a character that’s achieved a bit of a cult status in Captain Midlands, and completely threw him under the bus.

PC: Well that’s my job! I’d noticed he’d become quite beloved, so thus we’ve got to shake his life up a little bit and put some drama into it! And you know, if one gets drama inserted into one’s life that’s often a very terrible thing. So it’s my job to make you love these characters and then to hurt them.

GW: So was that the plan going in, was there always a tragic end in store for Sid?

PC: No, when I decided to use him in this arc, I did think “Yeah, now is the time to do the tragic development,” it’s not an end by any means. But it was because he’d gathered a little following! I also like the idea of Pete’s team, Pete’s old team, being gradually winnowed away. I think that’s the nature of what Pete gets himself involved in; he must be quite used to that. Well, no, he’s not used to that at all, actually, that’s what makes his character, the continual process of people around him getting killed and it largely being his fault. If we had a slogan across the front of the comic it’d be “Don’t get too attached!”

GW: It’s obvious that the worlds of Peter Wisdom and Captain Britain are like night and day. But both are obviously committed to the British cause, but with different methods. How does that feed into the team dynamic of the book?

PC: Well, hugely, that’s one of the things I really like. Rather than bitching at each other in a stereotypical way, these two are actually finding accommodations with each other, and I think that’s really interesting, because they are both on the same side, and Brian’s come to understand Pete an awful lot more lately. I think Brian really respects Pete’s sense of duty. The next issue coming out begins with them out, down at the pub together, and that’s really interesting for me to see. Brian’s sort of found a place in his respect for Pete, which will always be there as long as Pete doesn’t actually betray him. And Pete never betrays his own people. Pete MAY make them do terrible things, and may do terrible things to other folk, but he’s always very careful with his own unit. So I think this is actually as stable a situation as those two have ever found themselves in.

GW: Are you going out of your way to do something different with a team book, not deliberately follow the Claremont/Byrne model from X-Men?

PC: Absolutely. That’s really the whole point of writing comic books, to take something you had before and then to build on it, not to trash it, & not to revise it in an arrogant way. I see that happening a lot and it’s always really annoyed me. People seem to forget that when Alan Moore took over Swamp Thing, he spent his first issue carefully and respectfully sorting out the previous writer’s plotlines. It’s an issue that doesn’t get reprinted very often because it’s all about what came before. And I think that’s a good lesson. So what I tried to do with Cap, I thought big things needed doing, but they needed to be done in an evolutionary way rather than a revolutionary one, and I think we’re there now. This is a version of Cap, and the Black Knight, and all the others that’s recognizable from the previous appearances of the characters, and doesn’t make anybody think “Oh, who is this?,” and that puts them where they are now. In terms of team dynamics, certainly Claremont and Byrne wrote the book. Therefore, you have to learn from that and write a new book. And one of my things for this is, this team is at least is in some way official, and several of them are used to military discipline, Spitfire especially. There’s a moment, for instance, in the issue I’m currently working on where Blade and Joe Chapman, Union Jack, should be at each other’s throats because of something terrible that’s happened, but actually choose not to be, choose instead to be professionals. Things like that, that’s the difference, that’s what I’m after.

GW: I remember going back after I’d met you in Doctor Who fandom, and then lo and behold seeing your name in the letters column of Animal Man and Doom Patrol when Grant Morrison was writing it…

PC: Yeah, absolutely! Mark Waid was editing Doom Patrol at the time, and I’ve become quote good friends with him lately, and I’ve never quite said “Do you remember my letter?” because of course he won’t! That was for a long time my proudest achievement in comics because Doom Patrol had such a good letters page! It’s a pity about letters pages; the Internet has sort of taken over from them. Master of Kung Fu’s letters page used to be really good. They’re an art form of their own if you get them right!

GW: You might have heard there were internet rumors going around, propagated by Jim McCann at Marvel actually, that Captain Britain + MI:13 was on the chopping block, but then Marvel hit back and said no, that wasn’t the case. Did you hear about any of this when it was going on? What was your take on it if so?

PC: I adore Jim, and he just made a genuine mistake, back from holiday, hadn't checked in with Marvel, sees everyone talking about the cancellation as if it's a done deal, assumes this is something that's happened while he was away. So much happens in comics out of malice that I can't be angry at someone for making an error. And he's put so much effort into promoting us since! I think he may, in the end, have ended up doing us a favor.

GW: Dark Reign: Young Avengers has been announced since we first interviewed, with Mark Brooks on art. How did this title come about? What can you tell us about this book, how will it differ from the previous Young Avengers book(s)?

PC: I'm really excited to be working with Mark Brooks again. This is a miniseries in which the Young Avengers meet a group of kids in exactly the same situation they were, who've taken their name. But not all of them are doing as well at being super heroes as the original YAs did. Not all of them want to. Osborn isn't yet aware of them; they're in a moral grey area. The question is, should the YAs mentor them, accept them, fight them, feel oddly attracted to them? It's hopefully a very dark, quite disturbing book, but with the light of the YAs shining into it. I'm really psyched about it, and I'm going to see Allen Heinburg this weekend, checking in with him about it, so any big developments will be part of his ongoing plans for the YAs.

GW: Any parting comments?

PC: Well, I’ve got an adaptation of Iain M. Banks’ The State of the Art starring Paterson Joseph coming out on BBC Radio 4 in March, which will be available internationally on the BBC iPlayer. I’m really loving working with Marvel, I think this year is going to be a great one with them.

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