DC WRITERS RELAY: Spencer On Cornell

Thu, December 16th, 2010 at 11:58am PST | Updated: December 17th, 2010 at 2:51pm

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Nick Spencer hand Paul Cornell the baton on this leg of the DC WRITERS RELAY

From Scott Snyder grilling Jeff Lemire to Lemire digging into the work of Nick Spencer, CBR is cruising into the second half of our weeklong special feature on the writing talents driving DC Comics this week by adding Paul Cornell to the mix.

In case you're just joining us, welcome to CBR News' DC WRITERS RELAY! Each day this week, one up-and-coming writing talent from DC Universe will interview one of his peers about their work, life, career and more. Then the next day, the interviewee becomes interviewer before handing off the mic to the next round in the run. Our latest installment sees yesterday's spotlighted creator Nick Spencer speaking with the other half of his "Action Comics" co-feature team: Paul Cornell!

No stranger to comic and genre fans on both sides of the Atlantic, Cornell made his bones in fiction as a TV and novel writer, eventually penning the award-winning "Father's Day" episode of BBC's revived "Doctor Who" series. That work brought him to the attention of Marvel Comics where, for the past few years, he spun a number of cult and fan favorite series starting with the MAX comic "Wisdom" before crafting a number of series including critical darling "Captain Britain And MI-13" and the "Dark X-Men" mini. Since he came on as a DC exclusive talent last year, Cornell's run on "Action" featuring the uber-villain Lex Luthor in the lead role has grabbed big headlines and improved sales while he also shapes the most British DC book in a while with "Knight And Squire" and of late carries the torch set by Grant Morrison with a three-part story in "Batman And Robin."

Below, Spencer opens up the floor to discussion of Cornell's entire writing life, including the origins of his "Doctor Who" episode, the up-and-down British patriotism that runs through "Captain Britain," how he tackled the task of handling two characters associated with other writers in Death and Damian Wayne and what his real view of Lex Luthor is. Plus, Cornell turns the tables on Spencer, asking about his Image series "Morning Glories" and the roots of his Jimmy Olsen story in "Action." Read on, and then check back tomorrow to see relay's end as Cornell interviews starter Scott Snyder!

Story continues below

Nick Spencer: I figured we'd start by talking about "Action Comics," since that's the one we work on together.

Paul Cornell: Oh, no, no...I've decided to be a difficult interview, you see. [Laughter]

Spencer: Well, then I'm not talking about "Action Comics!"

EXCLUSIVE: Yanick Paquette's cover for "Knight and Squire" #6

Cornell: No, go on.

Spencer: Well, one of the things I wanted to ask about was about "Action" and "Batman and Robin." One of the things that struck me is that recently, you've gotten a chance to write two characters that have for a long time been associated with a singular voice – one being Death from "Sandman" and the other being Damian Wayne in "Batman And Robin." I was curious about how you approach finding the voice of a character that's usually so associated with a particular writer.

Cornell: Well, that's interesting, isn't it? I took two completely separate approaches. In the case of Death, I put her dialogue in front of Neil, showing him some place-holder dialogue, and he wrote about half of her lines in the end. In the case of Damian, I actually felt that Grant designed that character to go out into the world and be written by other people. This is the aim, I would have thought. He's such a fantastic and "easy to grasp the speech patterns of" character, that I didn't even thing twice before doing that. But that's interesting! I'd never even thought about it, I guess because Death was created for a single book, and there was presumably at the outset no intention of her going anywhere else, whereas Damian was created for a universe-wide stable of writers. Maybe that was the thought in the back of my head.

Spencer: One of my favorite new characters of this year has been Robo Lois.

Cornell: Oh, I love Robo Lois! [Laughter]

Spencer: One of the things I was curious about was just how much of that came from a "Doctor Who and the companion" sort of relationship. How much of that do you see in the book?

Cornell: Again...blimey! You ought to be a psychoanalyst. You're thinking of things I never thought of. I guess sort of because Lex really needed somebody to talk to, and we would have had to have found somebody human for him to talk to, but if it's human, then it's somebody who he somehow trusts. And who does he trust? There's nobody! So basically, we've given him somebody to trust by having him build her. It wasn't actually my idea. I think it was [editor] Wil Moss' idea, Robo Lois. Either Matt [Idelson] or Wil suddenly came out with "...and he should have a robot Lois Lane companion." [Spencer Laughs] It was one of those editorial moments.

Spencer: Wil's great for that kind of thing. With this run pouring through some of the great DCU villains, something that struck me was the most recent Vandal Savage story and this amazing gag of the city trap that Vandal has built for Lex. Can you tell me a bit about the thought process behind that?

Cornell: I always thought people just flipped through "Action," straight to the back.

Spencer: [Laughs] Well, I read the back first, Paul!

Cornell: I'm very pleased to have you at the back of my issues. But this stuff comes mainly to make each issue radically different from the last. We're well aware that we could get really stale, and I actually watched the bobbing of the reviews, which will go "He's in a real talky issue, so it's about time we got back to some action." Thanks goodness we anticipated that and went immediately for a big action issue [with the Vandal story.] So we're trying to make it all very different.

The start of Vandal just seemed to suggest that we needed to show who Vandal was. I'm really interested in showing off these characters at their best, and with Vandal Savage, you need some flashbacks and a bit of history to show where he came from. I guess the city just sprang from that. It did give me the opportunity to say, "Meanwhile, ten thousand years ago..." which I was quite pleased with.

Spencer: I really loved "Bohemia is such a better name than Czechoslovakia." That was one of my favorite lines.

Cornell: Well, it certainly gives poor old Pete [Woods] some things to draw, doesn't it? [Laughter]

Spencer: Let's talk a bit about "Batman & Robin" and the three-issue arc, there. Obviously, that book has just done a long, 16-issue run with Grant, and now you're doing three issues before Tomasi comes in.

Cornell: In retrospect, I should have been more terrified. I always have a policy of not thinking about who I'm taking over from. Because you're not trying to fill their shoes. There are no shoes. But I've now started to think, "Oh, God, that's a big deal," now that it's after the fact. But go on...

Cornell introduced Death to the mainstream DCU early on in his "Action Comics" run

Spencer: No, that's exactly what I was driving at. What do you view your role as as the bridge between those two runs? How do you tackle that kind of an assignment?

Cornell: I think the real thing is that there's an urge – because back in the old days, when we were reading, comics were like this – to dial it down. Fill-ins couldn't ruffle the feathers and they had to leave everything in place for the next team. But actually, "Batman And Robin" is so not like that. It's meant to be this big, intense, exciting book. Anything else would be so letting people down, so I gave it my best game and played it like I was the regular writer for three issues. It gave them a new super villain and suggested moving things along a little. That's one of the things where you sort of throw it into the pond and see what happens.

Spencer: One of the things I loved about your first issue was that it was my favorite kind of Batman. I personally love the fun, colorful Batman stories. I mean, I love the great detective stuff as well, but I loved the sense of action and energy that I got from your issue. What kind of Batman stories do you love?

Cornell: Thank you very much. I think that that's me trying to copy the shape of "Batman And Robin" a bit, because Grant has this fabulous way of molding the color and excitement of the 1960s "Batman" TV series with modern sensibilities. I think he's actually been the first writer to integrate that properly. It gets very grim in issue two, I've got to say. My story is not happy-go-lucky by any means. And this shows my sensibilities and the things I like in Batman. I used to read it through the Norm Breyfogle period when Alan Grant was writing it. That was very interesting. It squared a few circles. I like the grim stuff, but you can't do grim for very long. We've had grim for such a long time that more glamourous and globe-trotting is the way to go. It lightens it. Grant's created this enormously interesting text that's just a work of art.

Spencer: You do something a lot in your book, and when I catch it I always love it. You stick these great meta-commentaries into the dialogue. There was a great line in this issue that was, I believe, "Worryingly jolly"?

Cornell: [Laughs] Well, I think Damian is kind of there to voice with the audience's concerns. There's a certain Britishness to Damian. He is the one who will say the awkward thing. "Worryingly jolly" is a kind of nine-year-old's viewpoint. It's just thinking out loud, really. There's nothing worse than in-jokes, and I try not to do them. This is more of my unconscious worrying on the page. I don't believe in flaunting the imperfection. When somebody says, "This is the kind of thing that could only happen in a comic book," I cut that right out. I try not to put that stuff on the page, but sometimes it sneaks in.

Spencer: I wanted to switch over to your Marvel work for a minute...

Cornell: Are you allowed to? [Laughter]

Spencer: I better be! Because I really wanted to ask you some questions about "Captain Britain," which was one of my favorite series of the past decade. I just reread the first arc in anticipation of talking to you, and I'm in London right now, so it was a blast to read it here. The first thing I wanted to ask about was that this was an amazing story about patriotism, but it's also a story about how people don't wear their patriotism on their sleeves. You get goosebumps from these amazing calls to affection for your country, and then the very next line will be somebody making fun of that. Or there's that great splash page of, "We don't like to make a fuss about it." I was curious as to how you handled those moments and tried to strike that emotional chord.

Cornell: That's the nature of British patriotism, I feel. We have a very complicated relationship with our flag especially. And we can never say something straightforwardly patriotic without undercutting it with a joke or irony immediately afterwards in case somebody might think we were being too above ourselves or too serious. British patriotism annoys the hell out of me. It's really complicated. I think I am a British patriot in a lot of ways, but that's a very complicated thing to be. You could ask me that question ten different ways, and I'd have ten different answers. That book is an attempt to honestly address what the Brits would like these days in this field. It doesn't always succeed, honestly. A lot of people tend to view that run as what we like over here to call "jingoistic" which you would just call "patriotic."

Cornell recently revealed a hidden history between Lex Luthor and Vandal Savage

Spencer: And at the same time, you wrote Gordon Brown there. How was the feeling of that?

Cornell: Obviously, the only way that a real British politician is going to be in "Captain Britain" is if he's portrayed as absolutely wonderful in all respects. [Laughter] There's no real figure that's going to enter the pages of one of my comics who is still alive and has the option to legal redress by "the Lord High Chamberlain" who is not going to be portrayed in a good way. We actually did have it where the leader of the opposition was supposed to be meeting Dracula on the moon at the start of "Vampire State" rather than Dr. Doom. And we were going to have it that he would initially seem to go along with Dracula and then once he got back home, rush in to call MI-13. It would've been a bit of a fake out. But then our lawyers informed us that that might not be the best idea. I'm the only person in the world, I think, who replaced David Cameron with Dr. Doom. [Laughter] Although, now I'm wondering how Dr. Doom would react to being in a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. That's a comic unto itself.

Spencer: Who would you replace Nick Clegg with?

Cornell: Nick Clegg is obviously Loki, the god of mischief.

Spencer: [Laughs] That's fantastic. But "Captain Britain" did use a lot of British iconography and Excalibur. One of my favorite lines was when she said to Dane, "You're with the N.H.S. now." I wondered how you approach that, knowing a large portion of the book's audience was going to be in the States? Did you think about that at all, or just say "I'm writing this for myself"?

Cornell: I tried really hard to make it not "that British book." I think an American audience likes a little tiny bit of Britishness...but not too much. I think we tried to strike a balance in "Captain Britain" whereas there wasn't anything that had to get explained, but contextually, you'd see the point of what we didn't explain. Maybe it was pretty obvious in context, I don't know. But I tried not to have stuff that had to be explained.

With "Knight And Squire," on the other hand, it's almost offensively British. We don't get any reviews that go, "Oh, that was all right." [Laughter] We either get great love or screaming hostility. I think it's interesting that I've managed to sell to British people both the quite serious superheroics of "Captain Britain" and the over the top Dick Van Dyke superheroics of "Knight And Squire." The Brit audience seem cool with both, which is a bit of a surprise. I thought they might dislike "Knight And Squire." In terms of the American audience, nobody much read "Captain Britain," which was always the problem, and now nobody can quite understand "Knight And Squire." Even with my translator's notes at the back!

Spencer: I loved those. Was that your decision?

Cornell: I think Janelle Siegel, who edits the book and is wonderful, initially asked me just to send her a document that made it clear what all the bits of slang I used meant just in case there was anything filthy hidden there. [Spencer Laughs] And there was an awful lot that was filthy hidden there. So I sent her a lengthy list of what everything meant, and to her credit, she only edited a few things out. But she liked the document so much that she asked me to do one every issue. It's not really meant to be a translation of stuff. A lot of it is for British folk as well, who might not get my nostalgia references. It's nice to have a text page in the back of a comic, though. I think all comics should have them.

Spencer: Can we talk about "Doctor Who" for a second?

Cornell: Of course!

Spencer: Let's talk about "Father's Day," because it's one of my favorites. I'm a huge sucker for father/daughter stories. I just wrote one myself in "Morning Glories."

Cornell: Well, I was all ready to ask you about "Morning Glories." But I don't get to interview you here, do I?

CBR News: Paul, you can do whatever you like.

Cornell: Well then, about "Morning Glories," starting with the title. It's one of the most interesting titles on the stands!

Spencer: [Laughs] It's more interesting on your side of the water than mine, but yes.

Cornell: Why do you say that?

Spencer: Well, I inadvertently bumped up against a euphemism.

Cornell: Oh! [Laughs] Well, there's hardly anything that comes out of a Brit's mouth that doesn't have a bit of double entendre, but actually, I was wondering about the drug reference.

The translator's notes in "Knight and Squire" were originally provided by Cornell for his editor's benefit

Spencer: That's a very astute observation, that one of the things you think about when you think of "Morning Glories" is that it can be used to refer to a psychedelic.

Cornell: Either way, it's a brilliant title. How do you think it places...I mean, there are books out there with similar subject matters, but you take this to a very different place. And it's been tremendously successful. It's the indie book everyone's been mentioning the past couple of weeks. How do you think it places in comparison to other titles that are slightly like it?

Spencer: Well, my hope with the book was always that it could fill that niche that Brian K. Vaughan filled so well with "Y" and "Runaways." I missed that when Brian moved over to "Lost." I missed having a book every month that was a great long-form, self-contained mystery that had characters you could care about. As you know, it's difficult to do that kind of a book within the big two because of the publishing cycles. You can't come in with a five-year or seven-year plan anymore. So it'd always been my dream to do those kinds of books.

Cornell: "Runaways" was very much in my head when I read it. That's a very good book to be influenced by. And the other thing I wanted to ask you about was placing Jimmy Olsen in the modern world. Where is he on the "nerd" to "cool" scale?

Spencer: [Laughs] Oh, he's floating violently between the two, isn't he?

Cornell: Well, people talk a lot about "Scott Pilgrim" in relation to that strip.

Spencer: Yeah, it gets a lot of "Scott Pilgrim" comparisons, and I certainly think that's fair. That was one of the books I looked at while working on it. I looked at "Doctor Who," too. I'm always drawn to "Doctor Who," because there's always so many non-violent solutions to violent problems.

Cornell: Right. And Jimmy is the non-violent solution guy.

Spencer: Yeah. And I'm always fascinated by "Doctor Who" and how he always has to improvise.

Cornell: So Jimmy is a bit of the Sarah Jane Smith. He's the earthbound reporter who gets to deal with alien invasions!

Spencer: Exactly! And "Scott Pilgrim" was certainly an influence as well, stylistically, because I thought it'd be fun to bring that style of humor into the DCU. I grew up with a lot of Jimmy Olsen stories. My dad was a fan, and I had a lot of back issues he'd given me as a kid. It was always a character I'd wanted to take a shot at because to me, it seemed fairly easy how you could bring those sensibilities into the modern DCU. It just required you not taking it so seriously.

Cornell: You're the first person who has squared that circle, and it's a wonderful thing to see.

Spencer: Well, I hope so. It's really fun to hear people talk about the character in good terms again. Ever since John Byrne revamped Superman, he had been floating aimlessly, and every attempt to revisit him had been "Look how grown up he is now" or "Look how serious he is now" or "Look how real world he is now."

Cornell: That removes his character, doesn't it? That could be anybody.

Spencer: Right. That will never catch hold, and I feel we need to get back to what makes the character great – that Silver Age zaniness.

Cornell: And you kind of came to San Diego dressed as Jimmy! [Laughs] Is that just the way you dress?

Spencer: It is just the way I dress. There's a little chicken and egg, there, but I thought it'd be fun to rock a bow tie.

Cornell: But you were going to ask me about "Doctor Who," weren't you?

Spencer: Like I said, I have a soft spot for father/daughter stories, and your episode was one of the greats in my opinion. How did you approach that relationship? It was such a sweet story.

Cornell: Well, I write about my dad almost continually. My audience has now gotten used to the idea that in my stuff there'll be Britishness, there'll be my dad and somebody will lose an eye. [Laughter] Pete Tyler's career as that episode lays it out is almost my dad's career – all those jobs. My dad didn't realize it was about him until he read my introduction in the script book, which my brother had given him one Christmas. I'd been carefully avoiding showing it to him! I think he was flattered in the end, but he ended up being much more successful than Pete Tyler because in that list of businesses, his final business ended up doing very well for him.

While Cornell took "Action" for the chance to write Luthor, he's looking forward to Superman's eventual return to the title

Lex Luthor, as well, is a great big comic about daddy issues. The "Action Comics Annual" that came out is about young Lex before he lost his hair and two potential father figures. The little blurb we have for Lex in the front of "Action" talks about him killing his father all the time. It's sort of been one of my touchstones for the character. My dad's getting very old now, and I am aware that a lot of my writing is about that relationship. So "Father's Day" was straight down the middle one of my central themes.

Spencer: Now's a good time to step back and ask you a few general questions not related to your comics: What led you into writing?

Cornell: Um...an anger at school that led me to stopping writing ten-page essays and instead writing an insane, yelling response to a silly essay question that went on for 20 pages. To my amazement, it didn't get me thrown out of school but got me an "A." So my whole career is an act of revenge. [Laughter]

Spencer: As a kid, what were your favorite comics?

Cornell: I was a huge Stan Lee fan, growing up on British black and white reprints of Marvel Comics. I didn't know who I was a fan of back then apart from Stan Lee – that was always the name that stood out – but I read "The Avengers" and Ditko's "Doctor Strange" and later on "Spider-Man." "Spider-Man" always seemed a bit scary and more adult than "The Avengers." And I read British comics, like I found in the loft an old cache of "Eagle" annuals with Dan Dare in them and became fascinated with that strip. There was "The Trigan Empire" in the back of "Look And Learn." I was in the wrong era for "TV21," but I lapped up the "Doctor Who" comic strip when it came along in "Doctor Who Weekly." And of course, there was "2000AD" which I avoided until I was given the first three years' worth in a huge bundle by a friend. That's the tradition I'm from. It's a compact tradition. I think all British comic writers learned that their influences were three paged long, you know?

Spencer: What books are you enjoying now?

Cornell: Oh! Let me see. I very much like "The Unwritten." I think "Fables" is the best comic book in the world. Superhero-wise, I'm a big fan of anything Gail Simone does. "Secret Six" is an amazing book. I'm loving the Jimmy Olsen backup in "Action." [Laughter] And the number of female-led books that DC does, I love. I'm really looking forward to the first issue of the "Batwoman" ongoing. "Secret Avengers" at Marvel is a great title. It's good, unrestrained fun. And those wonderful Sherlock Holmes adaptations by Ian Edginton and Ian Culbard are fantastic. Anything Moore and Reppion do. Chris Roberson's "Cinderella" miniseries was great, and I'm very much looking forward to his "Superman." I love "Phonogram," and I'm looking at my shelves, you can tell now. [Laughter]

Spencer: Looking ahead, one of the big things is that Superman will be returning to "Action" at some point, right?

Cornell: We're not quite revealing all the plans, but I will be writing Superman in "Action" at some point after the Lex arc ends...whenever that may be.

Spencer: So are you getting excited for that?

Cornell: I did come in to this to write Lex, so I'm perfectly happy where I am, but there is a certain attraction to getting my hands on Superman. And one has one's ideal Superman and how he should be in one's head. I'm looking forward to doing that. It is the next thing, in some ways. I always say that he's a human being. That Clark Kent is real, as he was raised from infancy as a human being. He's a farmboy with an interesting ethnic heritage. There's klutzy around the office Clark Kent, which is the real Clark putting on an act. And then there's Superman, which is the real Clark Kent putting on a different kind of act. I think he takes a deep breath and puts on his cop uniform. It is just as if you were a cop. You deal with the world a little differently when you're in uniform. You're a bit more serious, and you're aware all the time that you're living up to the symbol on your chest. But this is a real, integrated person, and his name is Clark Kent. And I'm really looking forward to dealing with him.

Spencer: One last question that I was fascinated about was that I read the whole Wikipedia thing on you...

Cornell: Oh, how I keep wanting to correct that!

Cornell and Pete Woods' first "Action" arc is collected in "The Black Ring"

Spencer: If none of this is true, we can just scrap it, but I am always interested in faith and the impact of faith in people's lives, and the page talks a little bit about your background in the Lutheran Church...

Cornell: You see, but it's not the Lutheran Church.

Spencer: Well, there you go! [Laughter]

Cornell: I'm an Anglican. The thing I wanted to correct was that it used to have a quote from me saying that I was an Anglican and a Pagan.

Spencer: Now you're ten steps ahead of me!

Cornell: Well, they just started to argue about that on Wikipedia, and it got so complicated. I'm an Anglican, part of the Church of England. I call myself a Theist mainly because the word "Christian" has been grabbed by those who want to persecute gay people. They've even taken our name off us. I was a Wiccan as a teenager, and I still have great sympathy for British Pagans and Wiccans - nothing against American Pagans, but I followed the British system of Wicca. But they have a lot of similarities. There's actually a journal on the ties between Anglicanism and Wicca. So...yes, that's me. My wife is training to be a Vicar – a priest.

It's something I try not to talk too much about, mainly because my people are indeed rampaging around the world doing horrifying things. But then again, those aren't really my people. My people, in terms of Anglicanism, are a nicely mixed up, interestingly complicated, loose commonwealth of people with lots of different beliefs who...you've heard of Eddie Izzard's Anglican Inquisition sketch? Back in the old days of the Spanish Inquisition in the Catholic Church, they were really to the point and would threaten people with death or conversion. He says that ours would be "Death or Cake." [Laughter] We'd go, "Are you sure you don't want the cake? It's really nice cake." We have a certain established wishy-washyness which is incredibly valuable, I think. What that your question?

Spencer: Well, I was also curious about whether you found that conflict – I think I see it sometimes in your writing. Being a Wiccan, going back into that first arc of "Captain Britain" and a lot of the things that Skrull John Lennon says to the invading Skrulls in terms of the conflict between Avalon and the Skrulls. I felt like maybe that's a pretty direct exploration of those ideas, but I may be wrong.

Cornell: Well, it sort of sneaks in. I try not to make it direct because I don't want to be didactic, but you'll see that heroic characters in my work are the ones who believe in mercy and trying to understand the point of view of the enemy. I think Skrull John did articulate some of that, I'm sure. That's why Lex Luthor is so fascinating – because he's so close to redemption and yet will always fail. He's kind of a Lucifite figure actually in that you keep thinking he's redeemable, but he really isn't. I keep thinking of Mike Carey's "Lucifer" run and the way he'd catch Lucifer coming up against things that were worse than him and letting him be a useful protagonist while at no single point letting you think that this creature was anything but evil. That was a work of genius, and I'm trying to do the same with Lex – to understand and empathize while not forgetting that this is a really bad guy. Because, you know, we've got to understand and empathize with the bad guys too.

But hey...it said on your Wikipedia entry that you once worked in the political arena. Were you an activist?

Spencer: Yeah, I worked for the United States Senate for a bit and worked on a couple of campaigns.

Cornell: What flavor?

Spencer: [Laughs] I'm a Democrat.

Cornell: Well, you wouldn't guess that from your work. [Laughter] Well, thank you very much for outing me. I suppose that's more than enough.

Credit where credit is due, CBR would like to note our inspiration from the BBC's excellent Chain Reaction radio show. Check back with CBR tomorrow as Paul Cornell interviews writer Scott Snyder in the final leg of our DC Writers Relay!

TAGS:  dc writers relay, paul cornell, nick spencer, action comics, knight and squire, batman and robin, captain britain

 
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