An Interview with Paul Cornell
In 1993, Fox Mulder's office in The X-Files was decorated with a poster that read: "I WANT TO BELIEVE." In 2012, the first page of Saucer Country asks: "Does anyone actually believe anything anymore?"
Saucer Country is the new creator-owned Vertigo comic by writer Paul Cornell and artist Ryan Kelly, and a return to the bizarre world of UFO culture and conspiracy. Here it's entwined with U.S. politics as New Mexico governor Arcadia Alvarado is abducted just before she announces she'll be running for President. The first issue arrives in March, and Cornell plans to alternate its narrative arcs with "true life" stories exploring famous moments of alien contact. He also promises a "rather nice steampunky" story about charming inventors in impossible airships spotlighting surprised turn-of-the-nineteenth-century citizens down below.
Perhaps best known for his work for British television, Cornell is the only writer whose science fiction has been nominated for Hugo Awards across three different forms. There's the Doctor Who TV episodes "Father's Day," "Human Nature," and "Family of Blood"; the novelette One of Our Bastards is Missing, featuring spy Major Jonathan Hamilton protecting a timeline-adjacent British empire; and the sci-fi-fantasy-superhero comic book Captain Britain and MI13. (He assured me that "this uniqueness will last only until Neil Gaiman gets his Doctor Who episode nominated this summer.")
We talked about making the Grays scary again, when to wax lyrical in scriptwriting, and why fandom is often -- and awfully -- right.
Saucer Country feels very different to your other comic book writing. It really does seem like a Vertigo series from the mid-'90s -- and I mean that as a compliment.
That's very deliberate. One can choose the style one writes in, and there are certain demands for the mainstream DC range and certain demands for Vertigo. Some of my Vertigo grammar is from Bill Willingham because of Fables -- that's bound to seep in -- but there was also that wonderful period just before Vertigo arrived, actually, and DC itself had all these strange "adult" outcroppings. Like Animal Man and Shade the Changing Man particularly. I'm a huge Pete Milligan fan. So I'm just trying to get that Vertigo tone of voice, you know? It's a very good tone and it enables you to do almost anything.
Can we talk about writing the first issue to an ongoing series? I imagine it's almost impossible. You've got twenty pages for character, for mood, to gesture at larger themes, and to provide a cliffhanger. How calculated is that balancing act?
Pretty hugely. When you say "gesture to larger themes," that really is the whole game. You've got to indicate that there will be so much more you couldn't possibly represent in these twenty pages. I think we've done a good job, actually. I'm very proud of our first issue. The major message is that this isn't about aliens with names, plans, ships, and ray guns. This is about mythology. It's about the gray areas. It's about the human encounter with the numinous.
We take care to say Arcadia has been "abducted by aliens" -- in quotation marks -- because she doesn't know what happened and neither do we. I don't think many people who've been "abducted by aliens" know exactly what happened. We're trying to tell a concrete story while avoiding certain concrete things, to tell a thriller in the middle of mythology. That's really hard, especially in a first issue! But I'm enjoying this more than any other comic I've ever written. Maybe because Vertigo gets excited when you do five pages of people talking to each other.
You don't need to show Dracula firing vampire torpedoes from his moon base?
Although... now you mention it...
That was the moment that made me sit up and pay attention to your comic writing: Dracula firing vampire torpedoes from his moon base in your Captain Britain and MI13. Comics need more of that kind of thing.
I think Dracula should be in everything.
UFO conspiracies were huge in popular culture in the 1990s. Saucer Country brings back abduction stories, repressed memories, and even the image of the Grays, the iconic aliens from Whitley Strieber's Communion. Why do you think these things will speak to us again in 2012?
They've never stopped. Media representation of these things as serious and real and scary may have gone away, but out there in popular culture they're still abducting people. The mythology has rolled on; in fact, it's gained a huge number of dimensions since the end of The X-Files. The Lizard Men have arrived and started infesting our royal families, things like that. The Grays have now become this inflatable cartoon figure. We've got this word: "probing." We have a funny word for anal rape! This is because we're terrified. We're scared that this might be true. And that fear has led us to take this bogeyman and make this court jester out of it. It's fascinating.
Whitley Strieber's aliens weren't quite yet the Grays. They were nearly there, but it takes maybe two or three years of pop culture dilution to make the Grays as we know them. The Grays live in the heart of an archetype, pulling things toward them. Whitley's other aliens -- the little furry ones -- are completely forgotten. He had one big hit with the Grays, and his other aliens didn't make the Top Forty. And why have we chosen them? They are the dead of Belsen. They are laboratory cats with their heads shaved. They are aborted fetuses. They are everything we have done, back to get us. Literally back to have us up the arse.
So is part of your mission statement to bring some menace back to these archetypes that have been reduced to a joke?
It doesn't take much doing. All you have to do is ask: what scared you about that originally? I still can barely look at that Whitley Strieber cover. It's a brilliant piece of art, and it solidified the Grays in the popular imagination more than anything else. That book terrified me. I spent my university years wondering if I had "missing time"! So this title is sort of the story of my life. I always used to read scary, true-life UFO books. It's something I've been researching, as it were, since I was about eight. This wonderful, original American mythology -- like jazz is an original American musical form.
That's how people describe superheroes, too. Is stepping into the ongoing mythology of UFO culture like stepping into the ongoing mythology of, say, Batman?
Well, nobody believes Batman is real. A mythology should be something that at least a few people think is real. But... sort of. The narrative behind these things changes all the time. And what fascinates me especially is how people who espouse different versions of the legends can appear on the same bill together at UFO conventions and not argue. These are sometimes mutually exclusive theories! As a body of fiction, this is fascinating. The fact that that fiction actually contains some people's real experience is doubly fascinating. This is all the stuff we'll be exploring. We've got characters who are involved all at different degrees of both what they bring to the mythology and what they need from it.
I wanted to ask about fandom. Some of your earliest writing success was from your own Doctor Who fandom, and now you're an award-nominated Doctor Who writer. Does that color your relationship with your audience?
I think I understand the fan experience really deeply -- but a lot of people do now. Fandom has infested western culture. Everybody's now a fan of something. But it must be said that I'm not scared of fans. I kind of assume that they're right, and I don't feel there's a great distance between them and me. My experiences, particularly on Twitter, have confirmed this. My negative experiences on Twitter would be less than one percent. I'm not sure why that should be. I suspect all those years as a Doctor Who fan have inured me in some way, and have enabled me to translate from comic fan online to English. I'll go to a DC fan site and read "You raped my childhood!" as "6 out of 10, could do better."
I really did grow up in Doctor Who fandom. I was a fan from about the age of ten. It was my first large-scale social interaction; it was my escape; it was how I got out of a very small town; it gave me my career and everything. Doctor Who runs like a thread through my life. I think culture has caught up with subculture. I distrust ghettos, now. People who think that as fans they are persecuted and special -- I think outside the ghetto walls there are lots and lots of people enjoying exactly the same things that people enjoy inside. This wasn't the case when I was a kid.
It's interesting that you say fans are mostly right. What about the writer's maxim of "give them what they need, not what they want" in storytelling?
I definitely won't do what they expect, and I follow message boards to find out what they expect. But at the same time, if a majority say that there's a particular thing that's wrong about what I've done -- not continuity-wrong, not "we're looking at you halfway through the story and we don't like how this is making us feel" wrong -- but after the story's over? Then yeah, you've just got to accept that.
I woke up one morning to find a tweet, all in block capitals, which said "YOU RUINED BATMAN AND ROBIN!" Well, there's a reason they're called block capitals because I blocked him immediately. On mature reflection, though, I think I maybe did do the wrong thing with my three issues there. Enough people said that I did, and I kind of agree. Fans, as a mass, often just tell you the truth. And often that's an awful, awful thing.
Do you find that telling stories in different media -- TV, comics, prose -- requires entirely different skill sets? What lessons carry over from one to another?
That's really interesting. I think TV and comics have a lot more in common than either do with prose. Comics are kind of like frozen TV. I've started to use the past tense in my comic scripts ("he's closed the door"), because it's always about completed actions. And TV is all about continuing actions. I find it hard to write any two in the same day, because it can really mess you up if you move from one to the other too quickly. It sounds a little precious, but it's true.
What stays the same? There's often a need for the prosaic in comic scripts. When writing stage directions, the artist will appreciate it if you put in emotional content -- if you actually wax lyrical. The audience will never see those words, but they will see the artist's reaction to the words. When I first started writing comics I made the mistake of following the template of a 2000AD script I was shown by John Wagner. And of course he knows his artists so well and has been doing this for such a long time that his script literally read: "Dredd points," "Dredd with bike." I was swiftly told they really needed a bit more than that! That's where prose works in comics.
I was reading your novelettes The Copenhagen Interpretation and One of Our Bastards Is Missing last night, and trying to imagine them as comics or films. It doesn't work, because the prose style is so internal.
Thank you very much! That's the highest praise. They're not designed to work in the other medium. Prose is my favorite thing because there's total freedom. There's no budget of money, as on screen, or budget of space, as in comics. Like the opening sequence in Bastards: you could do it as a zoom in through the solar system, but it's kind of a conceptual zoom in. What it's about, actually, is an internal state. An emotional state. I can see how that could translate into a movie, but that would make it different. It's not designed for that, and that's my ideal for prose. Above all, I want to write prose that doesn't sound like it's come from a "media" writer. Prose was always my first love; it's actually where I started. The first sales I made were prose sales. I just got diverted a little.
In sci-fi prose, you can explain so much less. You use a term like "the embroidery" or mention transmitting facts through Hamilton's ring finger -- and it never slows down to explain or depict how it might work. Do you just trust readers to intuit the meaning of these things?
That is science fiction for me. The placing of cues which a reader will learn to expect, and know the places to look for them much as a reader of mystery fiction will know where to look for clues. Packing cues densely so that everything has two or three functions. The denser the better, I think, because that's how you get a more complicated, more lived in world. Hamilton really is an exercise in packing cues.
How does that same density translate into comics or TV?
It doesn't. Prose is really the one way you can get that, or rather the only way you can get that solo. You can get it from your artist in comics. Like Warren Ellis working with John Cassaday on Planetary. They are tremendously information-dense comics with very few words in them, because Warren's communicated to John -- and John has successfully delivered -- these designs where whole worlds are suggested just in the way things look. That takes doing; it's really the height of comics. In film and television, that's down to a director, so it's about giving the director enough to work on so they can build a world like that. Blade Runner is probably the ultimate example. It's not really any single line from Blade Runner we think of when we have the movie in our heads. It's that cityscape. I think film and TV, film moreso, is a director's medium. If I wanted to "author" something there, perhaps I would feel like I had to direct it.
Despite working in different media, do you think there is a distinct voice in your work, or are you more of a chameleon?
I like to think there's a distinct voice. It's something I'm hoping to push. People have noticed certain things: somebody gets hanged, somebody loses an eye, there are fourteen endings... I can never end. It's like Lord of the Rings! I think I'm obsessed with Britishness. I always say I'm the sort of Briton who loves Britain but would enjoy it more from the point of view of, say, New York. I'm obsessed with modernity. I don't like looking backward. I'm always very much for the next thing -- except, being British, looking backward is sort of genetic. Hamilton is an immense exercise in looking forward through looking backward. I hope that as I now settle down to do more novels, the things I do and the things I keep doing will come more to the fore. Right now, I've had to deal with so many different audiences these things are a little more diffuse. It's hard to see.
And you've just finished a new novel, right?
Yes, I delivered it last week in fact. Cops and Monsters, my first urban fantasy novel. My publishers, rather wonderfully, keep telling me they want a more subtle title. Because it's actually quite a serious novel. And I'm always saying: I've looked on Amazon. Nobody's used that title before! It's a pretty good title!
Indeed, indeed! There are cops. There are monsters. It's a really twenty-five-words-or-less novel; it's one thing. I've had two novels published previously but they were both sort of first novels, both very everything-and-the-kitchen-sink. I'm tremendously proud of Cops and Monsters. It's both a thriller and a modern day undercover metropolitan police book; I've gotten to know some wonderfully scary undercover coppers as a result. Four copper heroes gain the ability to see magic and monsters and, having freaked out for a while, decide they're honor bound to use the only way they know how -- police methods -- to deal with this stuff. There's loads of copper black humor, so it's funny as well, but mainly it's sort of a state-of-Britain novel.
So you've written, close together, both a state-of-Britain novel and an exploration of American mythology?
Absolutely. I would not feel badly done by if Americans got fed up of us Britons commenting on what they're like. I do know it's a huge subject, and I'm not about to make generalizations. I've actually explored the territory. We went around New Mexico and I bored my wife silly. "Oh, we're going through Socorro now, where police patrolman Lonnie Zamora has his encounter with what people now think was perhaps a prototypical lunar lander but he said was a rocket dangling below an egg-shaped craft!" I think an outsider's point of view, in this case, is quite useful. So it's the state of the nation in both directions. Let's just hope I get away with it.
Martyn Pedler is a writer and critic in Melbourne, Australia, and Bookslut's regular comic book columnist.