Interview: Paul Cornell on Wolverine, Doctor Who and sexism in comics
Paul Cornell recently appeared at Edinburgh International Book Festival as both a novelist and a comics writer. He talked to Nicola Love about Wolverine, Doctor Who and combating sexism in comics.
In many ways, Paul Cornell is the perfect interview subject. He talks more eloquently than I write and goes on the most poignant tangents I’ve ever heard. Cornell is no stranger to being interviewed – a little annoyingly, perhaps, he chooses his words carefully and doesn’t let anything slip – although no amount of probing has stopped him from talking excitedly and passionately about his career.
When we meet, Cornell is fresh from an appearance at San Diego Comic Con, and has two events at the Edinburgh International Book Festival – once as part of Stripped, to talk about his career in comics, and a second time to talk about his prose with Ben Aaronvitch.
“This is the first time on UK soil that I felt like comics were being treated as a simple part of literature, as opposed to something weird and strange”, he admits.
Shortly before we met, Cornell expressed his excitement at this revelation online. He tweeted that he felt as if the “ghetto had vanished utterly”.
With this in mind, are there still preconceived notions about comic books?
“When we talk about comics, we tend to treat that narrow field of ‘comic-shop comics’ as mainstream when, in fact, they’re just a tiny sub-genre”, he offers.
He credits creators like Bryan and Mary Talbot with opening up comics as a medium and proving its ability to go beyond superheroes, and even science-fiction.
“It’s nice being able to represent my novel but also appear as a comic-er in the company of people like Lauren Beuker and Neil Gaiman,” he pauses, “We’re what Neil calls amphibians – people that write everything: comics, books, TV… it’s nice to have a festival that involves all of these aspects.”
Cornell speaks very highly of Gaiman, remarking, “I think Neil is responsible for knocking a lot of these walls down.” I ask if he thinks there’s a difference between appearing as a comic creator and a novelist. He happily shrugs, “There isn’t much of a line between the two – if any.”
I wonder if he thinks that fans of his prose might be inspired to give his comic work a chance. After all, Cornell is currently writing Wolverine, a series that was recently rebooted as part of Marvel’s NOW initiative.
“I hope so,” he says, “It’s a little complex for me because I’m still writing a superhero comic, albeit it a very un-superhero comic.”
He credits titles like Hawkeye and Captain Marvel as Marvel’s way of reaching out to mainstream audiences. He considers his Wolverine run to be a little (OK, a lot) different.
“The fans have been slowly coming to my Wolverine; I think, nine issues in, they’re finally starting to turn – it’s like turning an oil tank around. By issue 13, we’ll either have all of them or none of them. It’s an immense change. They’ll thinking I’m ripping him up, they may be right.” He smiles knowingly, “It’s about taking an awkward vision of masculinity formed by centuries of life and taking him apart; deconstructing him slowly to a point at the end of #13 where, if we are going to kill him, it’ll be the least of what we’ve done to him.”
“Superheroes are dirty, great walking metaphors”
While it might be tricky to turn audiences onto a superhero comic, surely superheroes are filtering their way into the mainstream through blockbuster films?
“[Films] influence the mainstream in a wonderful way but I don’t know if they connect with the fanbase at all. They’re two separate enjoyments of the same character,” Cornell offers. “The superhero genre is becoming more relevant. It’s not just that special effects have reached the point where we can have meaningful superhero moves, people have now realised that these are big, emotionally representative stories… Superheroes are dirty, great walking metaphors.”
He scratches beneath the surface of the superpowers and the fancy costumes, citing Spiderman’s origin as a prime example and revealing that it’s reduced him to tears on more than one occasion: “It’s a story about a boy who learns how to be good… like all of us, he finds goodness through experience and through being bad.”
It’s naive to think superheroes could ever exist or that the idea of a real-life Batman is something people can relate to, but most superhero stories are written with elements of truth and humanity running right through them.
“There’s a reason that most comic writers are also mystics,” Cornell explains. “Mark Millar, Grant Morrison, Alan Moore… they’ve all had what you might call mythical contact experiences, because they’re all interested in archetypes… the way that the human unconscious forms archetypical figures,” he grins, “The myth-making power of Stan Lee, the way that man tuned his brain like a radio into archetypes… That’s what we seek to do with Wolverine”.
In addition to being a novelist and comics writer, Cornell is also known for his efforts as a screen-writer on Doctor Who. With such a wealthy writing background, is it fair to ask him to play favourites? I decide to do it anyway.
“I’m at a point now where I definitely want to do my own thing,” he admits. “Writing novels has allowed me to be free and, honestly, I’ve sought freedom all my career. The only licenced character I’m doing just now is Wolverine and. honestly, it’s such a radical version that I feel free there too.”
Is it difficult to be back under a strict editorial regime?
“My Wolverine editor, Jeanne Shaffer, is great. Marvel are all for change, they want to move things along and they want to progress. I’m delighted they were so receptive to the much bigger changes… it’s nice to play as part of a band like that.”
So what makes novels the ultimate freedom of expression?
“With the novels, it’s a wonderful thing; a set of excellent, life-changing notes, except you don’t have to implement any of them. You can, if want, ignore your doctor and do what you want. You can be stupid and fail, they’ll still print the book. You can pick and choose which changes you actually make!” he smiles. “I believe in listening to a good editor’s notes but sometimes I think ‘No, I want that little bit of pretentious dialogue’ and I’ll keep things here and there.”
When it comes to ‘what’s next’ for Cornell, there’s a limit to what he can talk about. Frustratingly for me, he chooses his words carefully and gives nothing away. He does, however, talk about his upcoming Doctor Who special – The Girl Who Loved Doctor Who. The 40-page issue, due for release in December, is a story that involves the Doctor landing in the real world:
“He meets Matt Smith, goes to a Doctor Who convention and realises that his adventures are available on DVD” laughs Cornell, “It’s me ringing out a bit of my backstory for Doctor Who again” he admits, “It’s a really passionate story, one I really care deeply about.”
It seems like the perfect time to ask what he thinks of Peter Capaldi, aka Malcolm Tucker, the new Doctor Who?
“I think he’s a great choice!” Cornell enthuses, “I would’ve preferred a woman though… I got really annoyed at lots of my friends in the Doctor Who fandom, I’d no idea they’d react so conservatively and negatively to [the idea of a female Doctor]. They seemed to think it was okay to say an awful lot of s***.” Does he think we’ll ever see a female doctor? “Maybe! Neil [Gaiman] changed the world by including that one line in his script about a woman having been a Timelord before, so that opened up the possibility.”
“It’s not comics for women, it’s comics for regular people – half of which will be women”
Cornell is known for fighting for representation of women in comics. When the subject arises, he narrows his eyes a little:
“It’s something I really feel passionately about. I’m fed up with creators saying they just happened to include a bit of feminism – it didn’t appear out of thin air’! That’s just people not wanting to own up to their own decisions. You’ve got to do this stuff deliberately; the culture pushes us to not do it, therefore doing it is a deliberate act. The more people who wave a flag as they do it, the better.”
There are some men who consider standing up for women to be ‘reversing sexism’. He shakes his head and sighs.
“If you reverse a situation that is overwhelmingly unfair, you might get to fairness!” He refers back to the mainstream-ing of comics books: “A mainstream audience is a parity audience – if you make comics mainstream, women arrive automatically.” He pauses for a moment to, apologising for ranting, before continuing, “It’s not comics for women, it’s comics for regular people – half of which will be women… We need to recognise that comic shop-culture is a bizarre little culture that is vastly male, but artificially so. It’s not about bringing women into that culture, it’s about the arrival of the burgeoning mainstream comic culture – which will eventually make comic shop culture look weirder and weirder.”
Bearing this in mind, Cornell has opted to only appear at events which operate a panel parity policy. For him, the tipping point came when he was invited to appear on a panel about Artificial Intelligence – a subject that he had absolutely no expertise in – while a female Artificial Intelligence researcher was sat in the front row.
“A huge reservoir of qualified women have been sitting in that audience” he explains. “A woman, when asked to go on a panel, will have excluded herself by thinking she needs to be an absolute expert; whereas a man will just give it a go.”
He turned down a recent invitation to appear on a panel about Arthur Machen at the World Fantasy Convention, because he knows so little about Machen.
“Am I going to have a go at that? No, I’m not. Not anymore… Hopefully they’ll get to a woman who knows Arthur Machen and the quality of panels will increase.”
I recount an Avengers press conference held in London last year. A journalist poses two questions, one to Robert Downey Jr. and the other to Scarlett Johansson. While Downey Jr is asked an in-depth question about his role as Tony Stark, Johansson is quizzed about her diet and exercise habits. Looking visibly annoyed, she asks, “How come he gets the interesting, existential question and I get the rabbit food question?”
Cornell nods vigorously, clapping his hands, “With all revolutions, Twitter and Tumblr are really helping with this. It’s given a new voice to women everywhere. They realise that, if they speak up, they’ll get support… they’ll get a lot of s***, but they know they’re not alone.”
Speaking of Internet-age revolutions, has Cornell seen online campaigns like The Hawkeye Initiatve – a blog that sees the Avenger strike all manner of poses in an attempt to illustrate the ridiculousness of the portrayal of women in comics? It turns out, he has. He’s also seen fantasy-writer John Hine’s version, too. He’s so taken by this sort of movement that he even gets up off his seat and attempts to recreate one of the poses in the middle of the interview. It’s all in good fun, as long the underlying message isn’t lost:
“For women to speak up about this sort of thing, it’s huge – it’s because they now feel there is a community of people cheering them on.”
With that battle cry, it seems like the perfect time to end our interview. As we prepare to head our separate ways, Cornell pulls out his mobile phone. Having told me earlier that he’s yet to see Man of Steel, he shows the picture that occupies his mobile phone wallpaper as the reason why: it’s a photo of his smiley, six-month old son.
Later that evening, at his Stripped talk, he’ll crack a joke about using a picture of his son biting the head of a Wolverine doll as inspiration for Wolverine #13.
Cornell might have all sorts of projects in the pipeline – projects that, in good time, he is genuinely excited to share with us – but it’s clear where his heart is. While he finds himself jetting across the world to promote his work, the appearance he’s really looking forward to is the next time he can be back home.