When DC Comics announced that writer Paul Cornell would be stepping in to steward their longest-running title starting with tomorrow’s “Action Comics” #890, there was plenty of reason to take notice. Aside from the fact that the relatively late addition to the Superman franchise would be making his mark on a comic starring the Man of Steel’s greatest foe Lex Luthor, the work will be Cornell’s first DC comic after establishing a reputation for quirky character-driven stories at Marvel on titles like the critical darling “Captain Britain and MI-13.”
Now, with “Action” #890 a day away from hitting stands, DC’s plans for Cornell seem to have grown considerably. Announced as an exclusive talent for the publisher, Cornell will soon have a full slate of DC books on his plate along with a possible full time TV gig if his BBC pilot “Pulse” is called up to the airwaves. But before those various and sundry projects are ready to roll, the writer starts his tenure with Lex Luthor. Cornell spoke to CBR about making the arch fiend more relatable in a title of his own, tying in influences from across the modern DCU from “Blackest Night” and beyond, including a few surprise villains along with way and how his working methods won’t change their shape even as he changes his publisher.
CBR News: We know that when you came over to DC, they’d pitched you on featuring Lex Luthor in “Action.” What was your initial response to the idea of doing a villain book, let alone Superman’s greatest villain?
Paul Cornell: Well, it was what I was offered when I got the title, and I rather enjoyed the idea. I’ve always been really interested in Lex Luthor. In the Superman mythos, he’s always the thing that I look at and think, “Do they get him right?” In the movies, “Smallville,” et cetera, he’s always a focus for me. I think they’re all wonderful, but I really think Gene Hackman does a strange and startling turn as Luthor. He’s equally as twinkly as Chris Reeve, really. He’s very watchable and very fun, but you always have that sense of the maudlin -Â the really base humanity of him. That’s his problem. I think one of the things “Superman Returns” did well was to emphasize how shabby Luthor can be sometimes. He’s got these fantastic high ideals, and he often lives up to them, but he’s also capable of epic villainy but stupid, every day, rotten villainy as well. I think he’s fascinating.
Well, with a character like Superman, you’ve got a character who is completely selfless and altruistic, so the flip of that coin should have a streak of pettiness and be undone by his own hubris, right?
Absolutely. And that’s what the joy of the character is – his own hubris and those little tiny human things.
So when you’re getting into that character’s head in terms of making him the star of his own book, do you say to yourself, “I have to make him sympathetic somehow,” or do you kind of revel in the things we want to root against him for?
It’s a tightrope between the two, really. I don’t want to revel in his villainy. I think that sort of puts a little distance in between being able to understand him as a real character. I want us to enjoy him, and we’re free to enjoy him as soon as he’s up against a bunch of villains who are worse than he is -Â or at least who are at the same level of villainy that he is. But at the same time, I don’t ever want us to forget what a bad guy he his. My touchstones would be Mike Carey’s “Lucifer” or “Tomb of Dracula” by Marv Wolfman. In those books, to an extraordinary degree, we were never allowed to see the lead characters doing a single good thing, but they remained compelling protagonists because the people they were up against were of an equal level of awfulness.
You’ve spoken a bit before about some of the villains we’ll see in the series…
And you don’t know everything yet! There’s a couple of real doozies coming up! [Laughs]
How did you go through the DC roster to find guys? Did you look for specific characters that matched an element or two of Lex’s personality, or was it more a matter of “I love Gorilla Grodd…how can I work him in”?
I think it was general levels of interest. There was a desire on my part to get away from villains he might have spent much time with or Superman villains. I wanted to play that interesting angle of taking him outside his genre. So I sent DC’s Matt Idelson a shopping list of villains I’d like, and this being DC, who have a functioning, wonderful continuity going, they actually checked in with the various editors of the characters to make sure they would be available and not in jail or something like that. So it actually was a good way to set up. My first thoughts on the shape of the plot came from what villains were available and when.
Without giving too much away, we know that the plot involves Lex tracking down the vestiges of power he tasted during “Blackest Night.” In a way, that’s reminiscent of video game plotting where the character quests after items. How do you work with a structure like that to make each new piece grow and build off the previous ones?
I think it’s by no means just a straightforward fight with a new villain every month. Some of them cross his path. Some of them are working at cross purposes from him. Some of them are working for him. Some of them are completely oblivious to what’s going on. So, I like to think of it as a gallery of the best DC villains in the same way that “Hush” was a gallery of Batman villains. This is kind of “Don’t DC have a lot of interesting villains, and here are some of the most interesting fighting Lex Luthor in a title which I like to call ‘Supervillain Punch-Up.'” [Laughs]
How do the other villains view him? Is he a bit of a target or a source of jealousy because he’s taken on Superman so many times?
Yeah. I think that Lex’s standing in the villain community is always going to be interesting. He’s had sort of a secret identity in that he’s walked amongst normal people and achieved some great things in the straightforward world. I think he’s regarded as one of the major leaguers. He may not inspire fear, but he inspires great respect. And I think a lot of the reason he doesn’t inspire fear is because that’s the way he wants it to be. We’re going to see a variety of different perspectives on him. Not all the characters that guest might be termed straightforward villains. There are one or two where that’s questionable.
And there are some familiar faces from the Superman mythos planned to appear, I’m assuming?
Oh, absolutely! This title is a Superman title, and it’s got Lois Lane in it, and we call in the first issue with the rest of the Superman books to say, “Yes, we’re still a part of that.” But for the rest of this run, we’re going to be doing something special and specific.
This book is your first as a recently announced DC Exclusive creator, and it’s been interesting to watch the reaction to that announcement come in two waves. The first is “Oh, cool for Paul!” and the second is “Crap! That means we won’t get any more Captain Britain!”
Oh, bless them! [Laughs] I think that’s actually very lovely. I’m quite touched by that. It’s brilliant.
When you wrote “Captain Britain,” you were able to speak a lot about your love of the Marvel UK characters and how you wanted to find them a place in the modern Marvel U. Do you have a similar background with DC work that could come into play with your new gig?
Yeah. Every time I went on holiday as a kid, we’d end up in places where -Â I think it’s because we were on the south coast of Britain -Â they had no Marvel Comics at the news agents. So I found myself buying DC comic books, and I used to read Jim Aparo’s “The Brave & The Bold,” and I read Joe Staton’s “Green Arrow/Green Lantern” and then just his “Green Lantern” for a long time. I was also a big fan of “The Flash,” so I sort of got my big dose of DC in as well. And it’s that thread of love that I’m following into the DC Universe. I can’t claim to be as deeply knowledgeable of the DCU as I was of Marvel. I could rattle off Marvel trivia up to my neck. But with the DC stuff now, it’s about talking to a more mainstream audience, so I won’t be hanging everything on tiny points of continuity. I think that what fans are after isn’t so much that every tiny continuity thing is addressed. It’s that the character is recognizably who it would be if this all happened. One of the biggest rushes I get in reading a comic book is going, “Oh yes! Batman would do that!” and I want to try and provide that. So if I don’t know an area of continuity or the mythos, I’ll research it like nobody’s business because I really want to have that confidence in it.
We often hear folks talk about that theoretical divide between DC and Marvel in a conceptual sense – Marvel is the grounded, feet of clay character universe while DC has these larger than life icons and such. Do you feel there’s a difference in terms of what you can do at DC versus the work you’d done in the past?
Well, no. I don’t think so. There are differences between the companies, but I’m still finding it hard to define them. It’s like a subtle difference in flavors. Certainly, right now at DC I’m finding I can really write character. These are people who you can tell what they’d really say if they sat down at a bar or went out to a restaurant. They have real lives. It feels more like writing a modern American TV show than anything else. I think Geoff Johns’ “Flash” right now really epitomizes that. It feels like a modern American TV show and requires a level of continuity that is non-existent. New readers start here. I hesitate to generalize. They’re both quite good, the two companies? [Laughs]
I talked to Dan Didio and Jim Lee the other day, and Dan talked about you being a person they were excited about coming on and doing more DC work. And when I asked if there was anything specifically that you’d be doing outside of “Action” that he could mention, he said “No, of course not!”
I saw that and was really pleased! [Laughs] So yes, there is something I’m two issues into, but I obviously can’t tell you what it is!
You’ve mentioned some of the stuff you’re following at DC now, and “Action” takes off on “Blackest Night” a bit, like we said. Is part of your task coming in to find the big threads running through the DCU and seeing where you can grow stories from there?
Yes, a little bit of that. But as always, it’s character and plot. As I’ve said, I like the characters, and I like putting characters through stuff and seeing how they react and interact with each other. I also like story. I like surprises. I like twists. I like endings. I like stories having shapes. And I think that in the whole comic field we’re getting back towards stories with shapes now. When was the last time you saw anybody on a forum going, “That was a fantastic twist. I never saw that coming”? That’s what I’d like to see more of, and I’m trying to write that stuff.
And in the meantime, you’re in the waiting phase to see if your BBC drama “Pulse” gets the full pick up?
Yup. We’re into that waiting game now, and I’ll be writing my comics even if that goes to series. With an exclusive, I’m committed to writing a certain amount of comics, and honestly I don’t think that will get in the way of anything. One thing that I do is that I plot a long way in advance. So I basically know what’s going to happen in all my “Action” issues for this first story, and that lets me do two or three things at once. So I’m waiting on the TV series, but nothing will suffer. Honestly, I’ve got chunks in my day now where I just go out and watch crickets. [Laughs]
“Action Comics” #890 by Paul Cornell and Pete Woods ships to comic shops tomorrow from DC Comics.