The man behind the Man of Steel

Matt Adams talks to writer Paul Cornell, currently scripting the adventures of Superman in Action Comics, but also responsible for acclaimed runs on Batman and Robin, Captain Britain and the Dark X-Men, as well as episodes of TV’s Doctor Who, Primeval and Robin Hood.

HE transformed Doctor Who into a human, revealed the dark side of the X-Men, resurrected national champion Captain Britain, and is now leading the world’s longest-running comic book through its 900th issue – so what is award-winning writer Paul Cornell doing in St Albans?

Fresh from an acclaimed storyline featuring Superman’s arch enemy Lex Luthor, Paul is now bracing himself to take on the Man of Steel himself, and will be discussing his work to date at a special signing taking place at Chaos City Comics in Heritage Close this Saturday.

But prior to this appearance, Paul took time out to talk about how he broke into comics, his work for both Marvel and DC, and his plans for the future as writer of the legendary Action Comics, which began with Superman’s debut in 1938 and is now celebrating a record-breaking 900 issues.

Paul’s professional writing career began in the early 1990s, and saw him pen several Doctor Who novels for Virgin Books’ New Adventures range, before stints on TV shows including Coronation Street, Casualty and Holby City.

He was one of the writers on the 2005 revival of Doctor Who, and also contributed to the 2007 run with the two-part story Human Nature/The Family of Blood, which saw the Doctor temporarily shed his Time Lord nature and become an Edwardian public schoolteacher.

Although he had contributed to British comics titles like Judge Dredd Magazine and Doctor Who Magazine between 1990 and 1996, his big breakthrough in mainstream comics came when he landed a gig writing X-Men spin-off Wisdom for Marvel in 2006.

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“Mark Miller the comics writer [author of Kick Ass, The Ultimates and Nemesis] dropped me an email saying ‘Would you like to write for Marvel Comics?’ – which was one of the best emails of my life, I must say! I’d been trying for a while [to break into comics], I’d got some nice feedback from DC a couple of years before, but that was really what let me in. It was then just a case of matching me to various projects at Marvel.

“You know, I found both companies to be really great to work for, and I think coming from TV you get used to things being a bit gruelling and a bit of a bind. But with comics, the sheer speed of it, the fact that it’s going to be out in four weeks and it’s got to be there, there’s something really invigorating about that. Everybody’s just moving very fast and giving their best all the time. Compared to television, where you’ll see it in 18 months maybe, and along the way all sorts of stuff will happen to it, and it’s all really sluggish, it’s just a relief, it’s so much better.”

This was followed by a work on titles including Dark X-Men, Fantastic Four, Black Widow and Young Avengers, but his stand-out work came on the critically-acclaimed, but criminally undersold Captain Britain and MI:13.

The title was tragically cancelled after just 18 issues, despite a concerted marketing campaign: “Marvel couldn’t have pushed it any harder. They really did support us a great deal, there just wasn’t the readership there. In Britain we were regularly top of the charts, but that’s very small compared to the American market.”

But the end of Captain Britain was not without its positives, as it indirectly led to Paul receiving an exclusive contract with Marvel’s rival company, DC Comics, after they made him an offer he could not refuse.

“The trouble is, these days with the market being what it is, when most creators have a major ongoing they will stay there and so I was waiting on the benches for a long time. I thought well nobody’s going to resign are they, so when DC came along it was at a good point where I could leave with ruffling reasonably few feathers and keeping friendships. So I kind of jumped at it, especially when it turned out to be Action Comics, which was the big ongoing I was after.”

Having made something of a reputation for himself with the quintessential Britishness of his work, Paul was delighted with the opportunity to break away from potential stereotyping by offering his take on one of the all-time great American icons.

“I think very much of Superman as an American. He’s for the world second, he’s an alien third and he’s American first.

“This is a guy who was raised from birth by Ma and Pa Kent. He’s an American with an interesting ethnic heritage, and I think Ma and Pa Kent made Superman. There are a lot of things in the universe stronger than Superman and there are a few things on Earth stronger than him, but there’s nobody who’s mentally stronger than him – he was built on really good foundations. He’s about good parenting really, like Lex Luthor is about bad parenting.”

Before taking on the Last Son of Krypton, Paul was responsible for a much-lauded run of Action Comics stories featuring Superman’s arch enemy Lex Luthor on a universal quest to locate the energy of the undead Black Lantern Corps.

“Lex was on the table when I arrived, and I was really pleased because I’ve always been interested in him, and it sort of took the pressure off a bit and I was free to experiment.”

That particular story comes to an end in the game-changing Action Comics 900, which sees the return of Superman to the title in which he made his debut back in 1938 with a special giant-sized issue, something Paul is obviously pleased to be involved in.

“I’m so aware of the honour of it, and it’s a really great pleasure – we’ve got 50 pages of lead story in that issue, plus all the stuff in the back by the other contributors – and it both serves as a real ending to Lex’s Black Ring story and also the same story is the start of Superman’s battle against Doomsday [the monster responsible for killing him in the 1992 story The Death of Superman].

“It’s not like one thing ends and the other starts, they are part of the same big ongoing story, and a few of the other characters we’ve had appearing in the run will pop up again, a few of the villains Lex’s met.

“The Doomsday stuff was brought to me as a thing that the company was going to do next, but when it got to Action I was very much allowed to use it to finish the Black Ring, which was like rocket fuel, and also to finish it as I wanted to, which is a good feeling.”

Approaching a character like Superman, who has featured across various media for over 70 years, is unquestionably a daunting task for any writer, as they will be conscious of the need to bring something new to the table, whilst also respecting the legacy of the past.

“Making him human is the important thing. Letting us know that he gets worried too, that nothing is a breeze for him, everything’s hard. It’s a question of making sure that it’s clear that it hurts him emotionally, that he’s emotionally involved.

“It’s what Christopher Reeve came to the equation with so brilliantly, that Clark Kent’s a real person – he pretends to be a bit more bumbling when he goes to the Daily Planet, he’s himself when he goes home to see Ma and Pa, and when he puts his costume on he takes a deep breath and is a bit more serious, like a policeman would. But he’s one real person, and he can be emotionally hurt, he cares, he worries, he fears. Just because he can fly and is really strong, it doesn’t make him alienated or distant.”

There’s an obvious long game to Paul’s plans for the series, and although he has plotted out much of his initial storyline already, this is open to change.

“There’s room for expansion, for contraction, for different things to happen. You get increasingly more concrete with the plot as you go through it – you might just have a better idea. This is the lovely thing about serial fiction, you’re kind of walking along a tightrope that you’re playing out in front of you, like Wile E Coyote you can see the other side of the canyon but you can only hope that you get there!”

Despite having tackled the likes of Batman and Robin, the Fantastic Four, Blade the Vampire Slayer, the Black Widow and now Superman himself, there are still a wealth of characters which Paul would like to get his hands on, although he’s cautious of any suggestion that he’s been in discussions to take over their titles.

“Everytime I express a shopping list these days people assume it’s what’s going to happen. These are characters I’ve definitely not had any conversations with anybody about, this is just my pie-in-the-sky list. And also because there are often not vacancies, it’s rather like a footballer for Manchester United saying how much he dreamed of going to work for Chelsea, you can’t really go for a job without a vacancy.

“I love Green Arrow and at Marvel I’ve always wanted to do a Defenders book – but I think they’ve done Defenders so many times that it would be really hard to do it again. It’s sort of my favourite comic book – in the vast 100 issue-plus run of it I don’t think there’s a bad era, every single variation on it was good.

“My favourite comic time really is the 1970s, especially Marvel, with books like Man-Thing, Howard the Duck, things like that, titles which these days you couldn’t really do, but which I could bring some of my sensibilities to.

“I’ve always been a big fan of Captain Marvel, the DC one, but we are not in talks by any means!”

Paul Cornell will be at Chaos City Comics in Heritage Close, St Albans, on Saturday March 26 between 1-3pm. For further details contact the shop on 01727 838719.