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SDCC '06: PAUL CORNELL TAKES ON PETE WISDOM FOR MARVEL/MAX
by Benjamin Ong Pang Kean

Blimey! Bastard!

When you put the two words together in a sentence, it sounds so British.

For example, "Blimey! Paul Cornell's writing Wisdom, a new six-issue MAX limited series! That bastard!"

Sounds British to you now?

Yeah, we thought so. We figured you'd go, "Paul Cornell who?" when you heard the news.

Paul Cornell is a novelist and television writer (notably for Doctor Who). He is also the creator of Bernice Summerfield, a Doctor Who spin-off character serving as a new companion of the Seventh Doctor in Virgin Publishing's range of original full-length Doctor Who novels, the New Adventures.

He is no stranger to comics, though, especially in the United Kingdom. He's previously written a comic strip for the 2000AD Judge Dredd Megazine (with D'Israeli in #209-214), now collected as XTNCT: Cm nd Hv G f Y Thnk Yr Hrd ngh!. Other comics work include Doctor Who in Doctor Who Magazine #156, 174, 197-202 & 207, Pan-African Judges (with Siku, in Judge Dredd Megazine #2.44-49) and Deathwatch: Faust & Falsehood (with Adrian Salmon, in Judge Dredd Megazine #3.8-13).

And did we say that he wrote for the long-running British science fiction television program produced by the BBC about a mysterious time-travelling adventurer known only as "The Doctor", who explores time and space with his companions, fighting evil?

"Mark Millar tripped and fell in front of a television on the night my episode of Doctor Who ["Father's Day"] was broadcast last year. At his age, falls are becoming, you know, an issue. Thanks to the angle his head was jammed at against the sofa, he was unable to get away, and watched the whole thing, and, still in a befuddled state, told everyone he liked it. The guys at SFX Magazine were amongst his victims, put us in touch, and I then viciously exploited his generosity to pitch a few things to Marvel. There's nobody as good at networking as Millar. You could parachute him into conflict zones and... well, okay, the actual conflict would get worse... but you'd find him having drinks on the embassy balcony with all the major players," Cornell explained to Newsarama, when asked how he got across the Atlantic Ocean to work with the House of Ideas on Wisdom.

"Wisdom was [editor] Nick Lowe's idea. He's splendidly filthy, by the way. Almost British. He sent me a huge wadge of photocopies of Pete's backstory, but what he didn't know was that I was already a Pete fan. My wife's very into Kitty Pryde, and got me back into comics while we were courting, years ago, and the Pryde and Wisdom mini-series was one of the first things I bought. That bit in Excalibur where Pete freaks out the psychic interrogator with how nasty his past is: one of my favorite moments in comics.

Taking the blame for the Wisdom series is something Lowe will cop to, gladly. "For the last few years I have had an unhealthy obsession with Pete Wisdom," the editor said. "He fascinates me and I think it's amazing that he hasn't appeared more in the Marvel Universe. Much thanks to the genius of his creator, Warren Ellis, he is such a cool character with a unique and yet completely identifiable personality- he doesn't much like what he does, but the duty he feels pushes him to continue. I think that's very relatable. So I've been wanting to do something with him for a long time. And that wasn't a secret.

"So when Ruwan Jayatillike, who does a lot of work up here recruiting writers and such, came to me and told me about Paul - who he was, what he wrote, and mentioned him as a possible writer for the Pete Wisdom project I'd been endlessly talking about I was intrigued. Then Ruwan - or "Road House", as we like to call him - gave me a DVD of Paul's Dr. Who episode and I knew Paul was the guy for the project. I told him that I wanted to do something with Pete Wisdom and MI-13, a branch of the British Secret Service, he came back to me with a kick-ass pitch for the book. It's one of the things you live for as an editor."

Cornell elaborated on the story. "Wisdom is the story of Pete Wisdom's day job, with the group of (largely super) operatives he runs as the sole intelligence officer at MI-13, the division of British intelligence that deals with Weird Happenings.

"It's a MAX series, which means not so much sex and violence...well, quite a bit... okay, it's a bloodthirsty shagfest, all right?...as the chance to tell stories in different ways. For a start, the first three issues are three complete stories. They contribute to the six-issue storyline, though, and should make for a satisfying compilation. It's beery and bawdy and entirely set in Britain. And British territorial waters. I get to use a few of my favourite British Marvel characters. Black Jack Tarr and Sir Clive Reston KCBE! Nobody else got a little shiver then, did they? I'm trying to deal with a genuine modern Britain that's not twee, but where we can still visit the mystical. So we're on a helicopter-borne military assault on Otherworld/Avalon in the first issue, automatic weapons against fairies, and in the second issue we've got something ancient and terrible in a little Wiltshire village. Those familiar with the character will recall how much Pete enjoys popping down to Wiltshire. It's not parochially British. If you like that hard-nosed sense of pubbish humor that the Brits in the field already have toyed with, you could do worse than give this a try.

"Pete's team are entirely new characters, apart from one who's been mentioned and seen in flashbacks during the Bronze Age. (Couldn't we find a better name for my favourite comics era?) There are some X-guest stars a few issues in, including a scene with Captain Britain that I've wanted to write since I was ten. One of the team is John the Skrull, who was part of Operation British Invasion, where in the 1960s the Skrulls wanted to replace the Beatles and influence the world. He decided that anyone could do an alien invasion, that he wanted to do something more arty, and stuck around, still pretending to be John. He's starting to think he should put his relationship with Captain Boko of the Kree behind him, call Skrull Paul and maybe talk about getting the band back together.

"In one way, it's about Fortean mysteries, that lead into a big Marvel Universe apocalyptic British battle, in another it's about Pete's life and backstory. And there's a new romance for him. Terrifyingly. Because if you want to get involved with Pete, there are some things you really should know about him but probably don't."

According to Lowe though, the miniseries wasn't necessarily set to be a MAX title from the start. "It was going to be more like a Marvel Knights book, but when the opportunity to go MAX came up, we jumped at it," Lowe said. "The thing is, Pete has always been more of a MAX character. He drank to much, he had terrible memories of the horrors of war fare and his solutions were never the kind of solutions that, say, Captain America would decide on. So it is just appropriate. One of the great things a MAX label gives us is an opportunity to play with genre. This isn't a super hero book. It has some similar elements - i.e. fighting, but it's a sci-fi book. That's one of Paul's specialties, so we wanted to let him run wild with it. It's a book about spies who deal with crazy supernatural sh*t. And it's gorgeous.

So, wouldn't it be good if the two former lovers, Pete Wisdom and Kitty Pryde, could get back together? After all, since Colossus is now back in the pages of Astonishing X-Men and all other Marvel comic books, wouldn't it be cool to have a slugfest other than a shagfest?

"I know what some of you are thinking: wouldn't it be good if Pete and Kitty could get back together? And I kind of agree. Kitty should be with this Pete, not that Pete. That must come in handy, that coincidence. Saves all sorts of post-coital misunderstandings... I'd like to see the two Petes fight it out. In a pub. On wet sawdust. Never mind pro or anti registration, what about 'Peter War, I'm with Wisdom'? 'Cos Kitty deserves so much more. Simplicity and heroism my arse. She's got a big brain, she'll tire of innocence in the end. Like one tires of sweet cider and seeks the dark, tasty delights of real ale. Unfortunately, it's Joss we're talking about here, working with Colossus and Kitty (how would you feel if your ex ended up with someone called Colossus?) So it's my point of view against the leading genius of modern storytelling. And I love how much he loves Kitty, and am at the comic store as soon as it opens for Astonishing, opening the boxes for them. They hate that.

"But, you know, I feel for Pete," Cornell continued. "When Frank Tieri said 'you won't believe how much of a bastard Wisdom can be' on Newsarama the other day I bridled. I really did. On a completely fictional basis. I thought 'yeah, he's a bastard, but he's our bastard'. And he's got his reasons. Though he may have forgotten them. He's trying to clean up his act these days. He's stopped the smoking, he shaves, he now wears a really smooth wardrobe from Yohi Yamamoto and Junk De Luxe. He's all for the future now, getting away from the past. And so obviously it's going to catch up with him.

"I'm also trying to do a few stylistically different things with Wisdom, like floating subtexts in the air beside characters' faces, in the manga style (anyone know if there's a word for that?) I'm a huge manga fan. Fruits Basket I think is one of the best single texts in the history of literature. Seriously, it's Jane Austen vs. Natsuki Takauya, 'Civil Responsibilities Burden War, I'm with Natsuki'. I'm interested in trying whatever different stuff gets the job done, and will be nicking from everywhere."

But - to definitively address the Kitty question - no, she won't appear. "Being a MAX book, we dance around the edge a bit," Lowe said. "You won't be seeing Excalibur or any super heroes, but it's the Marvel U. There are Marvel things throughout, but it's definitely MAX. It deals with the Marvel U. the way that Alias dealt with the Marvel U. There will be other Marvel U. characters showing up, but not the usual suspects. For example Black Jack Tarr and Clive Reston (of Shang-Chi fame) show up in the mini. There will be some recognizable people but, no, Spider-Man and Wolverine won't be showing up."

Oh - and Lowe wanted to give his take on what the series is about as well.

"One of the cool things that this series will do is tell some shorter contained stories that will all come together in one big finale that span a few issues," the editor said. "IIn the first issue, fairies have run wild in England. But this isn't a sort of-ohmigod, they're making children laugh too much-thing, these fairies are savaging people. To top it all off, Oberon - the leader of all the fairies - has kidnapped a high-ranking Minister of Parliament's child. It's up to Pete and MI-13 to save the baby and England. The next issue centers around a town whose nightmares are driving the people mad. When the dreams start coming to life, MI-13 has to step in. It's all really cool and builds to one of the most horrifying stories I've ever heard of. They all push the characters to the limits of what they can or are willing to do. It's just good drama."

On board to illustrate Wisdom is British artist, Trevor Hairsine (X-Men: Deadly Genesis, Ultimate Nightmare, Cla$$war). "The artist is the wonderful Trev Hairsine, and I've never worked with anyone who's so professional, so adaptable. He's doing some very photo-realistic stuff that kicks arse (not ass, no) in action sequences, communicates human relationships through expression, and tells the story. It's a lovely situation to know that I can let the pictures do the talking. He loves drawing helicopters, so as often as I can I've tried to give him a big splash with an enormous chopper."

Lowe: "I couldn't be happier to have him on board for this book as he is poring his heart and soul into it. I've been working with Trevor since I came to Marvel - from Captain America to Ultimate Six and Ultimate Nightmare, so it's a bit of a reunion. Check out the first cover and a few of his pencils! The other good thing is that we were able to give him a head start on this one to prevent delays between issues."

British creators are not unfamiliar to American comic book readers. Writers like Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, Neil Gaiman, Warren Ellis, Mark Millar, Garth Ennis, Peter Milligan and others are quite popular with fans for their non-traditional, unconventional and visionary works such as Sandman, The Authority, Transmetropolitan, Preacher, Watchmen, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, etc.

Cornell admitted that while he's a novelist, TV and comic book writer, he is also a comic book fan.

"In comics, I love how much the Big Two have got their houses together at the moment. I'm avidly following Civil War and One Year Later. Anything Millar, [Andy] Diggle, Joss [Whedon], Gail Simone, [Brian] Bendis, Mark Waid does. But I also love a lot of the smaller stuff. Albion, there's a book that deserves to be read more. Exiles has been a great book almost every issue since it started. I've just got back into Thunderbolts, and almost every Black Panther run has been great, particularly the current one. And Legion right now is awesome, the first thing I read. I'm interested in the way that movies and television are influencing comics storytelling and vice versa. There's an essay I'm going to write about the death of the thought balloon, which is somewhat down to Alan Moore's dislike of them and somewhat down to other visual media not doing them. But comics should, because they can, because they're a medium in their own right, and not a drydock for movies.

"In the past I've loved [Grant] Morrison's Doom Patrol (got a letter in that), [Sal] Buscema/[Roger] Stern Avengers (Buscema anything, really), [Marv] Wolfman and [Len] Wein (Tomb of Dracula particularly), [Doug] Moench's Master of Kung Fu, all things [Steve] Gerber and Killraven Killraven Killraven. I have a pile of Essentials beside the bookcase, and it's reaching the ceiling.

"In many ways, for me, working for Marvel is up there as a lifetime's ambition with writing for Doctor Who. Dad brought home a copy of the first British weekly Avengers comic for me when I was tiny. And I was hooked. Learnt to read with Stan [Lee]'s highly literary prose. 'Begone, base defiler!' That's what I'd say when other kids tried to nick my swingball. That comic reprinted Avengers #4, the return of Cap, and thus made no sense, really, to a new reader, and had Dr. Strange in the back, making even less. I still find the alien from that issue weirdly scary. I was cheering on when Dark Phoenix wiped that lot out, I can tell you. 'Why the long face?', that's what I'd have asked them afterwards. In the future, Stan Lee's going to be regarded in the same way as Hans Christian Anderson or the Brothers Grimm. He's a genius, and he's still not appreciated enough, we've never come close to giving him his due. When are we going to get around to thanking that man properly?

"My absolute lifetime desire is to write the Dynamic Defenders. So not a lot of hope there right now, really. Everyone thinks that book's about the big three, Hulk, Namor, Strange, but it's actually about Nighthawk, Patsy and the Valkyrie. Seriousness and humor at once. A very Buffy sensation before its time. An absurd subtle modernism. Gerber and Buscema made that absurdity look effortless. I think that's a book made for today. With, perhaps, Wolverine on the team. For artistic reasons. Against the Bozos. And the Elf with a Gun."

And if you think Cornell sounds exuberant here, Lowe said, you should read his scripts.

"I was expecting one thing from Paul and he delivered something far exceeding my expectations." Lowe said. "The thing about a lot of new writers is that, a lot of times, their writing voices sound like Frank Miller or Bendis or Millar. Paul has a voice all his own and layers his scripts with so many interesting things while still telling a compelling sci-fi story. They are a joy to read."

Other than Wisdom and everything else mentioned earlier, Cornell's kept himself busy writing a certain archetypal English folk hero. "I've just finished writing two episodes of the new BBC Robin Hood, which will be on in September in the Doctor Who slot on BBC1. That's very modern and hot. Keith Allen as the Sheriff rocks.

Also, "I'm developing my own show, which, if it happens, I should think will, ahem, be of some interest to Newsarama readers. There are a couple of incredibly exciting things in the world of novels that are happening, but about which I can't talk yet. I'm up for a Hugo Award next month for last season's Who, another lifetime ambition. And I'm writing Doctor Who again for season three, a two-parter this time, so I get to write a cliffhanger. I'm due to deliver the first draft of episode two as soon as I finish this. So it's a good time now for me, really. I have gone on and on, haven't I?

"Oh, hey, check out my blog at: http://paulcornell.blogspot.com/ I try and put news there at the same time as I announce it to my MySpace friends list, on http://www.myspace.com/paulcornell "  

Newsarama's Comic-Con International '06 Coverage is brought to you by Miramax Films’ RENAISSANCE. In theaters this fall.

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