Paul Cornell: Rhyming Demons and Alien PoliticsA comics interview article by: Steve Morris
Paul Cornell is a giant in the comic-book industry, and when I say that I mean that he is something like eight feet tall. He absolutely towered over me when I spoke to him at Kapow Comic-Con a few weeks ago, although thankfully he decided not to grind my bones to make his bread. The writer of a number of beloved comics - from Captain Britain to Dark X-Men at Marvel through to Demon Knights and Action Comics for DC - Cornell has recently launched his first original comic series on DC’s Vertigo imprint, in the form of the political conspiracy thriller Saucer Country. He has a novel due out in December, London Falling, and maintains one of the best blogs about writing to be found online.
He also owns a golden goose.
Steve Morris for Comics Bulletin: when you started The New 52, you chose to do a Sci-Fi story in Stormwatch, you chose to do a medieval story in Demon Knights and also, I presume you were planning Saucer Country at the same time, a series centered around conspiracy theories. What was so interesting to you about going into so many different genres at once?
Paul Cornell: Well, that seems to me to be the spice of life; I always want to do different things and The New 52 gave me the chance to do different things in the DC universe, to actually bring in some new genres. Saucer Country was something apart that I’d wanted to do for decades and yeah, having the opportunity to do different genres is good.
CB: Was it a case where DC said to you, “Could you do something with a medieval setting,” and you said, “Oh okay, can I have Etrigan and Xanadu in it, then?”
Cornell: Actually a bit of both in that DC said to me, “We’d like you to do a Demon book in the medieval setting,” and I said, “I’d like him to have some friends please because I enjoy writing teams.” And so I got to bring in Madame Xanadu and Vandal Savage.
CB: Saucer Country is also at times a bit of an ensemble title, with a lot of characters circling round your lead [Presidential nominee Arcadia Alvarado]. Do you view it as a team title, in a sense, or is it centered around her?
Cornell: I think that you could call Saucer Country Governor Arcadia Alvarado’s book. She is certainly the central character. And equally, Demon Knights is very much Etrigan’s book. But it’s always valuable to have the ability to cut away for reasonable lengths to other characters - if you look at Captain America in recent years under the wonderful Ed Brubaker run, that’s an ensemble book centered around the lead.
CB: And that was a political thriller at times, too. With Saucer Country you’re writing a conspiracy style thriller - is it difficult to keep the tension up in every issue?
Cornell: Well, it sort of tapped into a lot of my own fears, so I’m kind of daring Ryan Kelly to scare me every issue - and that makes it easy to get the tension going. I’m actually writing things that I know, when he draws them, will scare me. And this is creating precisely that sense I had when I was a boy, of looking through true life U.F.O books and seeing pictures of scary aliens. That’s a very specific sort of fear I’m trying to generate in myself again.
CB: Has the book got a specific endpoint, at least in your head?
Cornell: Yes. We have an ending. That is to say I know what’s going on and I know how I’m going to reveal the end, but we haven’t got a number of issues in mind. We hope we’ll get the chance - and as far as sales say right now, we will hopefully get the chance - to play that final hand when we want to. But no, I think anybody who’s writing something that’s delves into the same areas as the X-Files does, really has to give out a letter to the audience saying, “We know how this will end.”
CB: Aye, because otherwise if you do decide to follow the X-Files to the end then you end up with Billy Connolly screaming at snow. Does that mean that you’ve then structured the unfolding of the narrative more carefully? In a sense, you can think, “Okay, in ten issues from now, I want the characters to be at this place.”
Cornell: Yes. Well, Arcadia’s campaign helps with that, in that we’ve got the very specific timeline and frame of the shape of a presidential campaign.
CB: Do you imagine that her success or non success will be towards the end of the book?
Cornell: No, her success or non success is something we’re planning stories around now. That’ll happen a while before the end.
CB: When you’re writing your central characters as well, they’re just as diverse as the genres you’re writing within. Etrigan is a rhyming Kirby demon, by all accounts, and then you’ve got Arcadia and you’ve got Captain Britain, you’ve got the Stormwatch… and writing with different voices must be really difficult to keep in mind, just the specific patterns that they all have.
Cornell: Yeah, I think that’s the basic craft; you’ve got to have different voices in your head and certainly a character voice can be very valuable, in that if you can’t hear a character saying it, they probably shouldn’t be doing it. And certainly stopping Etrigan from being at any point kind or selfless is really important and his voice kind of stops you from doing that.
CB: Do you put elements of yourself into the characters?
Cornell: Oh, yes. I am Pete Wisdom.
CB: [at this point I stare for a good minute at Paul Cornell’s billowing trench coat]
Cornell: Yeah, hugely.
CB: See, when I was reading through Saucer Country, the first character who seemed to be a “writery” sort of character was the Professor, who has ideas in his head he’s trying to express
Cornell: Oh, Professor Kidd. Actually no - I’m Arcadia in Saucer Country… and to some extent Chloe. Chloe is becoming more and more my favorite as time goes on, because she gets the funny lines and you always like the person with the funny lines. I think of her like Spike in Buffy, she’s the one who will tell the hard truths in a funny way.
CB: Plus she tends to actually spike the conversations - she’ll call people out and deliver exposition through being patronizing to them.
Cornell: And to some extent she’s the voice of the reader as well. And I also like, very much, writing my opposite. Writing a noble and quite cool Republican, in Chloe, is really important to me.
CB: Well that’s not necessarily your opposite, exactly. Politically perhaps… but I’m sure you can be noble?
Cornell: Oh, I’m ignoble and uncool.
CB: I’m sure that if you saw a princess in a tower you’d be right over, helping her out.
Cornell: Well, maybe.
CB: So do you have any other plans, any other things coming in the future? Do you have anything else in your mind that’s like, “This is the next thing I want to come into play; the next genre.”?
Cornell: Yeah, I’ve got a novel coming out on December the 6th, from Tor, called London Falling, which is urban fantasy; it sees the modern Metropolitan police encountering the supernatural and deciding to fight it, using real police methods and tactics. And for that I’ve been consulting wonderfully scary, undercover police officers. So it’s full of police culture and I think we’re doing something different with what we might call ‘the magic’ as well, in that it’s a very analytical book; we don’t take anything for granted. I think my favorite bit is where my heroes have to start getting to grips with the idea of a ghost ship and a ghost bus and they start saying, “How can this be? Is this a bus that’s moved on and joined the choir invisible? Was it a good bus that followed the line? If we found the bits of this bus and put it back together again, we could have the real bus?”
CB: Frankenstein bus.
Cornell: And it’s about using that police methodology of taking things apart; to sort of deal with magic in almost a science fictional way, to do the analysis.
CB: Mike Carey told me something similar to that; he said, when he was writing his Felix Castor books, he first thinks of how the magic works and then he thinks of how the characters *think* it works, and he tries to get those two circles intersecting in a realistic way.
Cornell: Very much the same thing. I’ve got a magic system that my characters haven’t actually figured it out.
CB: When you’re writing something like Saucer Country where you can just do whatever you want, is there more a tendency to try more left field stuff in terms of storytelling style? For example you start off in Saucer Country with essentially a cold open, I would say, with two characters stranded in the desert somewhere, making not much sense and setting up things we might not understand for another year…
Cornell: Certainly yes. I think it’s all in the service of the story and I’ve been getting really wild and wooly in my short stories recently; I’ve got one coming out, which has been accepted and… I really barely understood it, and I was quite pleased about that. But in terms of Saucer Country, it’s about story first and it really is for me about being able to take it in whatever direction tells the story best. I don’t think I would ever challenge the audience, in terms of their ability to understand; I’m very much keen in committing to the audience getting it straight away.
CB: Something like Captain Britain was very indicative of that, where in the second arc, ‘Hell Comes To Birmingham’, you very carefully set out the parallel dimension thing, so then you could bring it back later.
Cornell: And I’m very pleased about that. It took too long to play, sadly; I always say that if we’d done Vampire State as the first arc back to back, Captain Britain would still be going.
CB: With your stuff like Captain Britain, the stuff that you’re doing for a big company, do you find it’s more important to try and pitch like maybe a simple story structure where you tell a story without damaging the characters, or do you feel like there’s still a lot of freedom to play around with?
Cornell: There’s still a lot of freedom to play around with, and indeed the companies want you to bring your best game. So I think a number of really good comic book writers have quite a challenging storytelling style; I think Grant Morrison requires reading comprehension and that’s all to the good. I think it’s really more a question of your playing with their toys and you know when you signed on that there were certain limitations to that.
CB: So you can take the toys out, you can mess with then if you want but then you put them back in, in roughly the same sort of place.
Cornell: Not necessarily roughly the same place.
CB: In a progressed place.
Cornell: In a progressed place and certainly there’s more freedom with your own characters. I’m sure there will be a writer who wants to use Etrigan the Demon in 30 years.
CB: If you were to cut off his arm or his leg it might make it a little more difficult for him.
Cornell: Well that’s true and also if I did that to Madame Xanadu I think that might make things difficult for the writers of Justice League Dark.
CB: Was that something where you have to do a lot of planning in there? Because that one’s very strange; you were writing a DC New 52, but you have one story set in the past and one in the present, and they tie together in unknown ways.
Cornell: Well Peter, Jeff and myself are friends and so we’ve all been able to talk. We haven’t really set up anything concrete, because honestly we don’t have to. It might be nice to do something down the line but really it’s more of a question of not putting into place in Demon Knights anything which would mess up anything someone else is planning, because of course, because of the time factor involved, he’s always downriver from me, so honestly I can hurt him but he can’t hurt me.
CB: There’s an evil power isn’t it? An ignoble power.
Cornell: Unless Madame Xanadu suddenly comes out with some revelation that she was…
CB: Dating Batman…
Cornell: …as a child.
…When she was a child. Not grown up Xanadu dating Batman as a child