Writer Paul Cornell takes control of Marvel's favorite British mutant - plus, check out a seven-page preview of Wisdom #1
By Kiel Phegley
Posted October 31, 2006 4:10 PM
Over the past 20 years, the American comics industry has had an ongoing affair with Great Britain. DC, Marvel and many other companies have found success in recruiting British talent for their books, from Alan Moore to Warren Ellis, as well as in introducing British characters to their stories, from John Constantine to Union Jack.
Marvel hopes to make a splash tomorrow by combining these two standards with Wisdom, a six-issue miniseries by creators Paul Cornell and Tevor Hairsine that follows the exploits of the British super team Excalibur's sarcastic everyman.
While many fans may know Hairsine from his earlier work on the British Cla$$war series or his more recent Marvel work such as X-Men: Deadly Genesis, Cornell is a relative newbie to the American comics scene. Making his name as both a novelist and television writer most associated with the recent reinvigoration of England's most famous sci-fi serial, "Doctor Who," Cornell is a longtime comics fan who's worked across the pond for quite some time.
Wizard Universe got to know Cornell and picked his brain about Wisdom, "Doctor Who" and the brilliance of the Dynamic Defenders.
WIZARD: Some fans out there may know about "Doctor Who," but beyond your work on the series, what is your comics background?
CORNELL: When I was a kid, I basically learned to read on British editions of Stan Lee's Marvel comics and the extraordinary dialogue coming out of Namor and Thor. I was the kid on the playground who knew what a "base defiler" was. I've written quite a few comics in Britain, three different series for 2000 A.D. and a lot of Doctor Who comics. I'm not completely new to the form, but it was always an ambition of mine to write an American comic. So this is a bit of a dream come true for me.
And you have some connection to Pete Wisdom, being a fan of Warren Ellis' run on Excalibur?
CORNELL: Yes. When I first met my wife, I'd been out of reading comics for two or three years. I'd finished reading a number of Vertigo titles that had come to their natural conclusion, so I kind of drifted away. We went to see the "X-Men" movie, and she loved it and said, "You have some of those comics, don't you?" And I not only got my old X-Men comics down from the loft for her, I started buying superhero comics to see what was out there. One of the first things we bought was the Pryde and Wisdom miniseries. I got interested in the character there and followed on to become interested in his entire world. I love the Pete/Kitty relationship above all else. There's a good reason why there's a body of fan fiction about the two out there... much of it 18+ rated. [Laughs]
It hits an emotional mark for a lot of people, and I think the transition for Kitty between Piotr Rasputin and Pete Wisdom is sort of about fandom growing up. It's very much a generational thing. People's reaction to that is about how old they are, and I think it was an older fandom giving way to younger, perhaps more female fandom. And where she is now with him is an index to where comics are now in terms of their audience and which nostalgia we're playing with. It's a really interesting point to be handling the character. I identify with Wisdom. I think he's something of a British everyman, and I really adore him.
Is there some correlation for you in writing Wisdom and Doctor Who? Are there any similarities you see?
CORNELL: Pete is all about human failings and weakness, and the Doctor is all about being slightly lofty and above that while being tremendously human. Their fashion sense has something in common these days, though Pete has gotten a bit more natty. I think they're Apollo and Dionysus, really. Pete's very much about the body, and the Doctor is very much about the mind. Oh God, that sounds pretentious! [Laughs] I'd love to write them together. That's never going to happen, but I'd love to.
I wanted to ask about your background beyond Doctor Who. I'd read your very extensive wikipedia page.
CORNELL: I love that.
Isn't it weird that there's so much information about you on the Internet all of a sudden?
CORNELL: How do they know my birthday? That's what I want to know!
Well they also know a lot about your background, and there's such a huge body of British television that we never see in America, so most of what you've worked on is completely foreign. What would you say you've spent the most time with?
CORNELL: My big thing was the new "Doctor Who." I'd written an awful lot of Doctor Who in the 15 years when it wasn't on TV when the fans owned it. I'd written some of the more well-received novels and audio plays and things like that. And that's where the new show came from. Russell [T. Davies, executive producer and chief writer of the new "Doctor Who"] was part of that whole movement, and took people from that.
Originally, I was a novelist who learned to write television so that when "Doctor Who" returned, I'd have a chance to write for it. That crazy backwards way of doing things was how I sorted my career. So I wrote for endlessly boring medical shows for a very long time while waiting for "Who." Not that they were all endlessly boring, in case some of my old "Casualty" muckers are reading this. [Laughs] Just recently I've been writing for "Robin Hood," which is the new rather hard and wonderful Saturday night, Errol Flynn revival [for BBC] - [it's] the leaping off battlements and having sword fights version, which is absolutely fantastic. I've written a couple of very political episodes for them about how far Robin is willing to go and stuff like that. Apart from that, I think it's mostly my work on Doctor Who in other media that people may have encountered. So I'm just starting out in a way. This is a whole new thing for me.
When people step into the first issue of Wisdom, what should they be aware of? He's been on a bit of a comeback recently with New Excalibur. Will any of that play in, or are you developing this series independently in order to introduce people to his world?
CORNELL: Everything you need to know is there in the first issue. You can pick this up without knowing a word about Pete Wisdom. He is the leader of a unit what works for MI-13, the current division of British Intelligence that handles the weird stuff in the Marvel Universe. I do have an ongoing political plot about what's happened in the previous versions of this stuff in Marvel, of which there is a long and torturous history. But the actual tortuousness of that history is actually a lot of fun and the reason why Pete is where he is. He leads a team that includes John the Skrull, who was part of a Skrull attempt in the 1960s to replace the Beatles and have them move the society from Transcendental Meditation to worshiping the Skrull Empire. John decided that Jerry and the Pacemakers could do the Skrull invasion, and he wanted to do something more arty. He met a Kree woman called Boko, and left the group, but these days he feels he should get back in touch with Skrull Paul and get the alien invasion going again. In one of the issues, I've got a one-page, Richard Lester "Help!" style Skrull/Beatles movie to tell the history of that.
There's also a dissident fairy called Tink who is very much part of the plot of the first issue, which is about the relationship between Avalon/Otherworld. I am told by various Excalibur and Wisdom fans who I've connected with on the forums that Avalon and Otherworld are not necessarily the same thing, so I'm going to have to do a quick edit on that. And there's Captain Midlands, who is a remainder from the 1940s British supersoldier program. He wasn't frozen in a block of ice; he's just lived through all that time. He's still super strong, but he has the body of and the attitudes of an 80-year-old man. So he's continually grumbling about things. Oh, and there's Maureen, who is very much part of the plot of the six issues. She is a new member of the group and somebody who Pete gets very interested in.
Trevor Hairsine, who's drawing it, has got this lovely photo-realistic, high-emotion storytelling going on, and can kick arse in the action scenes. Our first issue is "When Fairies Attack!" They've been grabbing children and assaulting people across Britain, and so Pete, with a helicopter gunship and his unit, are sent in S.A.S. style into Avalon in order to hurt them until they stop. It's your everyday "Special Forces unit against fairy" story.
This miniseries is going to start with some standalone issues so that people can step into the world a little easier?
CORNELL: Yeah, three standalone issues. I think a lot of people are having this idea recently as a reaction to the whole decompression thing. Paul Dini's doing it spectacularly on Detective Comics right now with the single-issue stories. And I did have a big six-issue story I wanted to play, but I think coming from Britain when you have a Judge Dredd story that takes three pages and is everything contained in those three pages, we have a tradition of compression. And I wanted to play with that. 22 pages still seems like a luxurious amount of time to tell a complete story today. So these are 22 pages with usually two or three full-page spreads an issue for three complete stories, and I'm thoroughly enjoying myself. Being able to use characters from the Marvel Universe like Clive Reston and Black Jack Tar, who I grew up with, is just so fantastic. I've really enjoyed myself at that.
If you get a chance to work on anymore Marvel characters, who would you like to work on?
CORNELL: The Dynamic Defenders. I loved the Defenders when I was a kid. I think they have an absurdity and a realness to them which is very, very modern and which has never really gone away. What everybody does, which I wouldn't do, is focus on the Hulk, Dr. Strange, Sub Mariner and Silver Surfer. These are characters who really cannot appear in a team book, and the Defenders was always about the little guys. It was about Nighthawk and Valkyrie. The way Steve Engelheart wrote the Valkyrie was fantastic stuff. There was a run of really funky writers on that book. Engelheart, [Steve] Gerber, David Anthony Craft...[J.M.] DeMattais later on in that run was doing fantastic stuff with "The Terrible Art." This is a huge influence on how I grew up, because as a kid I always read comics for the story. For some reason all the comics I like would end up being drawn by Herb Trimpe or Don Perlin or somebody, but they would have fantastic writing. And then they'd be cancelled. The number of times I would pop down to my local shop and buy a team Marvel Comic and it would be the last issue... I swear! When Machine Man finally went t-ts-up with "Complete Your Collection Special" written on the front, I just thought, "I like sh-t comics!" It was always comics that were very well written, and Machine Man had Steve Ditko drawing at the end in a wonderful way, and it was Tom Defalco writing it.
If you could give the readers one last pitch for Wisdom, to convince them it's worthwhile, what would you say?
CORNELL: It's a dramatic, funny tragedy with lots of violence, quite a bit of sex... It's intended to be a genuinely mature comic. It's not an adolescent comic. It's a comic really for adults. That is to say, it doesn't have swear words liberally sprinkled all over it. It was two very deliberately chosen ones, and I wrote it initially as an all-ages comic and then was told it was going to be a MAX book. The changes were very slight. It's also a relationship comic. It's about sexual relationships, which is one of the strengths of the mutants. That's something that the X-Men always did especially well in the days of early Claremont.