Paul Cornell: Man of Action (Comics)

A comics interview article by: Dave Wallace
Paul Cornell is one of the hottest rising stars in comics, having recently handled the critically-successful (yet sadly now cancelled) Captain Britain & MI-13 at Marvel before moving to DC, where he’s now in the middle of an equally highly-praised run on that company’s flagship Action Comics title. In between keeping a blog at and undertaking work in other media such as TV and novels, he’s also preparing to launch a Knight and Squire miniseries at DC and a book called Soldier Zero at Boom! Studios.

Comics Bulletin’s Dave Wallace caught up with him for a chat.

Dave Wallace: Paul, one of my favourite books at the moment is your run on Action Comics, detailing Lex Luthor’s quest to get his hands on the power of the Black Lantern rings from Blackest Night. What’s so appealing about writing Lex Luthor? And how do you keep such a fine balance between making him likeable and keeping him authentically villainous?

Paul Cornell: I think what’s so interesting about Luthor is that he’s only one tiny change of character away from being a hero. But in that tiny change is all human weakness. He just doesn’t get that Superman, by being Clark Kent, is a much better human being than he is, and not an ‘alien’ at all. His personality is a universal type, endlessly fascinating, especially that in his case it manifests itself in having killed his father. Which is apt for someone as Promethean as he is. He’s also got a great name, combining ‘words’ with ‘protest against the establishment’. He is the protest slogan personified.

Wallace: This is a story that was originally going to be handled by Marc Guggenheim before you took over, is that right? Were previously established plot points and story ideas handed over to you, or were you able to come up with all-new ideas separate from what Marc had been planning to do?

Cornell: All that I was told was ‘Action Comics with Lex Luthor in it’, and we went from there.

Wallace:Your run on Action Comics got a lot of attention recently when it was revealed that Death from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman is going to guest-star in October’s issue #894. What led to that decision? Was it something that you felt the story demanded, or was Death a character that you’ve simply always wanted to write? Or was it a combination of factors?

Cornell: I’d decided we wanted characters that were a long way away from Lex in terms of who he’d normally meet, and that some sort of representation of Death would be cool for the arc. I was originally going to go for the Black Racer, because that would be weird and awesome, and then I suddenly realised that there was another level of weird and awesome this could go to, hence asking Neil about Death.

Wallace:I’m interested to know closely do you have to work with Neil when using one of the Sandman characters, especially such a popular and well-loved one. Does he have to just agree to you using her, or does he have to give final approval of the full script and final pages?

Cornell: I don’t know about ‘has to’, I have no idea what the legal position is on that. We just offered him approval, and the chance to change anything he wanted to.

Wallace:Another question that I’ve been meaning to ask is whether your run on Action Comics has intentional thematic links to some of your previous comics work at Marvel? I’ve noticed that a lot of your books deal to some extent with the subconscious inner workings of the human brain. There was the collective British subconscious of Wisdom and Captain Britain, the exploration of creative thinking and literary inspiration in FF: True Story, the repressed and contradictory memories of Black Widow, and now we have Mr. Mind poking around inside Lex Luthor’s subconscious and Black Lantern energy taking over the emotional centres of people’s minds in Action Comics. Is that a deliberate recurring theme, or just a coincidence?

Cornell: I think having a second dimension to play in helps give depth to a comic. One of my favourite things in superhero comics is where the reader feels ‘Batman would *so* do that’, when there’s a high quality character point, so I try and go for that stuff as often as possible.

Wallace:My final question on Action Comics relates to a coincidental bit of timing: I have to ask how you felt when you realised that Christopher Nolan’s Inception movie was going to come out just a couple of weeks before your similarly-themed issue #891 of Action Comics (which featured Mr. Mind taking Lex Luthor on a journey through his dreams) hit the stands. Were you happy to shrug it off as a case of great minds thinking alike?

Cornell: I had no idea that was even what Inception was about until I saw it! But both texts are just the latest in a long line of uses of this stuff, I don’t think it harms or enhances the comic, really. Great movie, though.

Wallace:Another project that I’m really keen to hear about is your Knight and Squire miniseries. I guess that having written such a well-loved run on Captain Britain made you a natural fit for DC’s most high-profile British characters, but from the preview pages I’ve seen it looks as though this is going to be quite a different book in terms of its tone?

Cornell: Yes, the Cap series was as ‘serious’ a take on those characters as can be imagined, which was a response to the level of whimsy with which they’d been portrayed (rather wonderfully) before. You want to do the different thing. With Knight and Squire, they’d already been given a grand whimsical background by Grant, so I’m just pushing that further. I think there’s a big difference between British creators making a deliberately over the top superhero Britain and Americans doing it. Because we know of what we’re taking the mickey out of.

Wallace:I’ve recently been reading some of the earliest stories featuring the Knight and Squire characters, and I loved some of their goofy Silver Age trappings (like their horse-shaped motorbikes). Have you drawn much inspiration from those early stories, or have you come up with your own take on the characters?

Cornell: There’s a bit of that in there, but I think that comes from Grant’s set-up. They now live in a modern, diverse Britain which is also the land of Monty Python and Morecambe and Wise.

Wallace:How closely is the series tied to what’s going on in the other batbooks at the moment, if at all? Have you been following Grant Morrison’s epic Batman story closely, and are you planning to bring elements of it into your book? Or is Knight and Squire more self-contained?

Cornell: It ties in not at all. Indeed, each issue is an individual story, until they tie together at the end. This book is so compressed it’ll inflate your tires.

Wallace:DC has recently revealed that each issue of Knight and Squire will feature a glossary of British terms and references, to help non-British readers to understand the book better. Who came up with that idea? And have you been involved with writing those, or have they been compiled by someone else?

Cornell: That’s in the first issue, we’ll be using the text page for various different things after that, but often including what the references are about. Jimmy’s been providing some lovely faux adverts too. It was the idea of our wonderful editor, Janelle Siegel. She’s been very supportive and creative.

Wallace:The third comic that I know you have coming up soon is Soldier Zero at Boom! Studios. Tell us a little about that.

Cornell: It’s the story of Stewart Trautmann, an ex-Marine, wounded in Afghanistan, now a pacifist, who’s forced to bond with an alien soldier to survive a fire. Stewart’s in a wheelchair, but the alien gives him brief periods of being able to walk, fly and use various powers. The alien’s a ruthless killer, but with their minds being linked, Stewart modifies that into them both together being something like a superhero.

Wallace:And you got to work with Stan Lee in connection with the book, is that right?

Cornell: Yes, he created the character, had notes every step of the way, and indeed has written a lot of the finished first issue, adjusting a lot of stuff I did.

Wallace:Are there any other comics projects coming up that you can talk about yet?

Cornell: No, sorry!

Wallace:Moving on to your TV work, I was sorry to hear recently that the BBC didn’t commission a series based on your pilot show Pulse, which I enjoyed when it was shown earlier in the year. It felt like we had only scratched the surface of the show in that 1-hour pilot – do you have detailed plans on how things would have progressed? And would you consider continuing the story in other media, like comics?

Cornell: Yes, we had a plan, we knew what was going on, we were close to having a finished episode two script. I was pretty devastated, but, you know, that’s television. We’re exploring our options right now, so you never know.

Wallace:Finally, I also hear that you’re going to be making an appearance on the British quiz show Only Connect soon?

Cornell: Yes! Myself, Geoff Ryman and Liz Williams are the Fantasy Writers team, who will be playing the Bridge Players on October 4th on BBC4. It’s my favourite quiz, and I enjoyed being on it. And of course I can’t tell you the outcome.

Wallace: We’ll have to tune in to find out! Thanks Paul.

Cornell: Cheers!

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