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Words and Pictures: A Conversation with Paul Cornell

I talked about Demon Knights, the Paul Cornell-scripted series from DC, in this column not so long ago, and thought it’d be fun to follow that up with a chat with the man himself. Here’s that chat, but first just a word or two of intro.

Paul Cornell’s got a pretty remarkable body of work under his belt, from the writing point of view. He’s a screenwriter, novelist and comics writer of very considerable experience. He’s also a knowledgeable and sincere fan of all things science fictional, as regularly demonstrated on the Hugo-winning SF Squeecast, where he’s a regular.

The two comics series that currently have his name on them are the aforementioned Demon Knights from DC (though since this discussion, it’s been announced he’ll be handing over those writing duties to a successor shortly) and Saucer Country, his creator-owned series from DC’s Vertigo imprint. Also imminent is the first in a series of novels, London Falling, more info on which will be revealed in what follows.

On with the talk …

BRIAN RUCKELY:     Starting at the most obvious place, could we have a few lines of elevator pitch for your two current comics series, Demon Knights and Saucer Country?

PAUL CORNELL:  Demon Knights is The Magnificent Seven in the medieval DC Universe, Saucer Country is The West Wing meets The X-Files, the story of a presidential candidate who’s been ‘abducted by aliens’.

BR:     One of the things that often strikes me about your comics – certainly in Demon Knights – is that the fun you have writing them comes through loud and clear to the reader, as a playful inventiveness in settings, context, plots and character interactions; of all those, my impression is that it’s character that’s at the root of your approach to writing this stuff. Do you think of everything else as essentially arising or flowing from character? Is it where the fun resides, for you and/or the reader?

PC:     I think one of the greatest thrills in comics, because we’re dealing with starkly iconic characters, often, is that feeling of ‘they would say exactly that, wouldn’t they?’ Seeing a new thing that is just so Batman. I certainly do work from character, and find plots that underline or define or challenge the characters I have. But some of that is just writing 101. I certainly find great entertainment for myself in coming up with new moments for the characters I really like, especially when they’re my own creations.

But I do like a couple of things which aren’t so common in comics: I enjoy plot twists (which I’ll have set up months before, and watch the internet to see if anyone’s anticipated) and endings. I think stories are about endings. Comics not often getting proper endings is a terrible thing.

BR:     Watching almost-live reader reactions on the internet must be a perilous business for a comic writer, isn’t it? Comics fandom on the internet seems even more feverishly engaged, passionate and vociferous (to put it politely) than sf fandom. Do the pros of the intense attention, comment and analysis out there outweigh the cons, for a comics writer?

I wonder if in the internet age this is quite as silly a question as it sounds, to ask of a writer of serialised fiction: Could you imagine fan response and expectation ever influencing the subsequent direction of storylines or character development in a series you were writing, either to satisfy fan hopes, or confound their expressed assumptions?

PC:     I do a bit of that, actually. I speak comics fan, so I can read message boards without wincing. I know that ‘you pissed on my childhood!’ is translated as ‘six out of ten, reasonable effort’. I also know that you know you’ve lost the majority of the comics audience when all you get is positive comments. That means all you’ve got left is the ones who like your work, and the ones who were there for the characters and are giving you a chance have gone. Mind you, I don’t think that should result in, as I think some comics writers do, trying to get a negative response, because that at least shows there’s still a beating heart to the comic. I tend to look for what the fans expect to happen, so I can make sure I’m not doing the obvious, and look to keep on surprising them. But hopefully in a positive way.

Being a fan myself, I don’t look down on fan community response. I do wish, though, that it was the fashion to talk about story, rather than continuity, comics business politics and creator gossip. You sometimes feel that the narrative, for comics fans, isn’t what the characters are doing but what the companies are.

BR:     The endings thing is interesting. It is, as you say, such a fundamental component of ‘story’, and is something ongoing comics struggle to deliver, but you do seem a bit more sensitive to it than many comics writers. Am I right in assuming that you have a definite ending in mind for Saucer Country, that you’re aiming for right from the start? And that in Demon Knights we can expect a pattern of arcs that are designed to feel like almost self-contained stories, delivering something akin to the satisfying closure of an ending each time, even if the larger story continues?

PC:     Yes, I have a specific ending ready for Saucer Country, but we haven’t worked out how far away that is yet. And yes, that’s true for Demon Knights, I want it to be a series of stories, each with an ending, that nevertheless carry on. Similarly, for my novel series, each London Falling book completes a case for my police characters, though there’s a longer narrative in the background.

BR:     In my discussion of Demon Knights on this site, I got into a compare and contrast exercise between it and Seven Samurai/The Magnificent Seven. Could you expand a bit on why you chose those films as the starting point for your storyline, what you took from them and what you changed or left out?

PC:     The story of ‘small village gets bad guys to fight for them and in so doing find what’s good about themselves’ works every time. And I thought it made an ideal introduction for these characters, who I’m presenting as if brand new, even when not all of them are. I like that you picked up on the inversion of the ending, that usually the village survives at the expense of our heroes, but this time it’s the other way round, because I wanted this to be a hopelessly romantic title, where darkness is all around, though I hope it doesn’t slide into being cynical.

BR:     One thing that distinguishes Demon Knights from its cinematic influences is that at least a couple of your main characters are distinctly anti-heroic, arguably outright villains. It’s not the first time you’ve been in that territory, since Lex Luthor was the focus of your run on Action Comics a couple of years back. What’s the appeal, and the challenge, of making the bad (or at least not very good) guys the focus of a comic?

PC:     I actually quite like full-on good guys, in that finding depth there is actually more surprising. (I’d love to have had longer to work with Superman.) Putting an ensemble around Captain Britain, and saying here’s a nice guy, was something I enjoyed doing. But the audience aren’t keen on the nice guys, and so this taste of mine gets in the way of my job, and so I have to fall back on the more obvious tactic in finding shades of grey in antiheroes.

BR:     This might be a slightly parochial question, but as we’re just two fellow Brits talking here I figure I might get away with it: Do you think nowadays there’s a discernibly different sensibility that the British writers working in mainstream US comics bring to the task? It was pretty obvious, when the so-called ‘British Invasion’ of US comics took place in the 1980s that the invaders were bringing a different approach, and ambition, but is there still any difference?

PC:     I think the invaded country has pretty much taken on our customs and forms of speech. It’s so hard to find a writer who isn’t influenced by Alan Moore or Grant Morrison or Mark Millar that it’s a pleasure to find someone like a Jonathan Hickman, who’s as talented, but has an absolutely American voice.

BR:     Couldn’t agree more about Jonathan Hickman: an amazingly distinctive and accomplished new(ish) voice in mainstream comics. There seems to have been a mini-explosion of new voices coming to prominence in the last three or four years, and there seem to be quite a few folk succeeding in getting sf, horror and to some extent even fantasy comics off the ground now; any thoughts on where that’s coming from – and perhaps where it’s going – as a trend?

PC:     I think that’s true, with titles like Saga proving it. What seems to be happening is creators leaving superheroes behind when they leave Marvel and DC and making a success of creator-owned titles in SFF genres. There’s a lot going on in comics for SFF fans now, fueled by digital distribution, and I wish mainstream SF fandom paid more attention to it and were better educated about it.

BR:     I’m pretty sure I’ve seen you say elsewhere that, for all your active involvement in comics and TV writing, you envisage yourself ending up as a novelist. What is it about novel-writing, as distinct from other forms, that draws you and makes you think it’s your long-term home as a creator?

PC:     A novelist gets to be artist and director and actors. I’ve always hung around with and envied the working lives of novelists, and I want to at least solidly establish myself in that field and prove I can do it well. Neil Gaiman calls himself an ‘amphibian’, in that he moves between all media. In a lower league table, I’m doing the same thing now, but I wouldn’t mind making a big enough success of one thing to stay there.

BR:     When I, or you, or any other novelist, write prose the audience is unambiguous: the text’s a pretty direct communication between author and reader.

In comics (and in a slightly different way TV), the audience for the words you actually write in a script is more complicated – the artist, principally, perhaps colorist and letterer too. Does it make comics writing a fundamentally different skill set and form of communication compared to prose, or are the differences only skin deep?

PC:     It’s a team game, rather than a solo game. And that does have joys to it too. Getting great artwork or a great performance back as a result of your script is also exciting. But I do like the idea of just me and the reader in direct communication.

BR:     Saucer Country is the kind of story that I could imagine as a novel (albeit quite an unusual one). How do you decide that something like that should be a comics series instead? Is there something specific about that story that made you think it belonged in a visual, serialised medium?

PC:     I think it’d have to be a lot more compact and a lot less episodic to be a novel. The parameters of a comic series and an HBO returning TV show are pretty similar, I think. I knew that I wanted to go to a lot of different places with it and cover a lot of ground, and a novel should hopefully have a certain unity of purpose and setting.

BR:     What can we expect from you in non-comics stuff over the next year or two? There’s an interesting sounding novel coming from you before the end of this year, London Falling, which sounds tantalisingly like a possible hook for a series? Or might we hope for some sf TV with the Cornell fingerprints on it?

PC:     London Falling is indeed the first book in a series (UK readers get it in December, US readers next April), the sequel to which I’m writing now. It’s Buffy meets The Wire, modern undercover police in London dealing with the supernatural using genuine police methods. Each novel is a complete case, with a few strands of backstory keeping going, so it’s like a series of crime novels rather than a fantasy trilogy, it’s open-ended. I hope these are the books which demonstrate I can be a novelist, in that they’re intelligent thrillers. I hope they whizz along but with some weight to them too. I’m also talking to people about new projects in television and comics. And the short stories keep popping up too.

2 Comments on Words and Pictures: A Conversation with Paul Cornell

  1. Thanks, Brian. I’ve heard very good things about London Falling, and although UF is not the center of my reading, I’m willing to give it a try.

    • Yeah, UF’s not really my usual diet either, but my guess is that both the genre and the set-up Paul’s described play very directly to his greatest strengths as a writer (in all media), which makes me think London Falling could well be One To Watch. The fact that it’s getting a hardback launch from a major US publisher suggests they’re pretty bullish, and suspect they might have a hit on their hands too …

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