Many Marvel Comics fans know Pete Wisdom as a member of the British superhero team Excalibur, but Wisdom has a day job as well. He’s an agent for MI-13, an arm of British Intelligence tasked with protecting the British Isles from all sorts of “weird” threats. Beginning this November, readers will get a chance to see Wisdom and his fellow MI-13 agents in action in “Wisdom,” a six-issue mini-series from Marvel’s MAX line by writer Paul Cornell and artist Trevor Hairsine. CBR News spoke with Cornell about the series.
Cornell has written science fiction novels and for many British television series. It was his Hugo nominated episode from the first season of the new “Dr. Who” series (season two of which currently airs on the Sci-Fi Channel) that brought him to Marvel’s attention. “Mark Millar saw my ‘Dr. Who’ episode ‘Father’s Day’ and was kind enough to tell Marvel that he really liked it,” Cornell told CBR News. “I got an e-mail from Ruwan Jayatilleke, who’s tremendously self-effacing. He almost has an English level of self effacement. He introduced me to Nick Lowe. Nick had this idea for a Pete Wisdom series, which was Pete against the supernatural. I pitched to him and he liked it.”
“Wisdom” may be Cornell’s first assignment as a comic book writer, but he’s a huge comic book fan. “I’ve got a huge subscription off of Forbidden Planet,” he said. “I also have to hit stores every week to buy the titles that I’m not sure whether or not I’m subscribing to yet.
“At the moment I really love the ‘Atom’ by Gail Simone,” Cornell continued. I’ve got a huge pile of Marvel Essentials sitting behind me as I speak and I’ve got a huge pile of unread comics on the table in front of me. I also love what Mark Millar does. I love ‘Black Panther’ at the moment. Reggie Hudlin is kind of writing a series of quick movies. It’s different to anything else. I also love anything Mark Waid does – ‘Legion’ is my first read at the moment. That’s like a really superior teen show. So I got severely addicted again way before I got this gig.”
One of the reasons why Cornell’s addiction to comics returned was his discovery of the character of Pete Wisdom, so he’s very excited to be tackling the character. “I got out of comics originally at the end of several Vertigo titles that I liked. Then my wife, when I first met her, we went to see the ‘X-Men’ movie and she said, ‘Do you have any of those comics?’ So I got a box of them down from the loft and I started buying superhero comics again. One of the first things that I bought was the ‘Pryde and Wisdom’ mini-series, which made little sense at the time, but then I swiftly filled myself in on Peter Wisdom and I really deeply fell in love with him.
“I think he’s kind of a rough, British everyman,” Cornell continued. “I love the tragedy of his life. I love the way he keeps trying to push the stone to the top of the hill, only for it to run down the hill again taking his trousers with. I think he’s got tremendous potential and energy. I loved the fact that he was kind of born out of a stereotype as kind of Marvel’s reaction to John Constantine. but he’s transcended it.”
Cornell feels that Wisdom and another mutant named Peter sort of represent what types of heroes a mutant can become when they decide to fight for Charles Xavier’s dream. “I also love the fact that he’s almost a commentary in the flesh on what the X-Men were like; he and Peter Rasputin stand almost as diametric opposites in terms of what the X-Men are,” Cornell explained. “There’s the noble, upright prince and there’s this really kind of human, grungy, down to Earth guy. When you come to mutants it’s sort of like the choice between the two of them is kind of the choice that every mutant faces; as to ‘are you going to be this noble hero? Or this blood on his hands secret agent?’
“I also think it’s kind of a generational thing,” Cornell continued. “Pete Rasputin kind of represents the 1970s and the 1980s. Pete Wisdom was kind of the 1990s dark comics response to that. So. there’s this tremendous broth of stuff at the heart of this character, and I’ve really enjoyed, to really push a metaphor here, pushing my hand down into the soup and grabbing some of the bones.”
Cornell feels the main bones that make up Wisdom’s personality are related to his occupation as an agent of British Intelligence. “His best quality is that he’s not a renegade hero who would give up his badge and his gun and go on the run against his masters,” Cornell said. “He likes duty. He is duty. The only reason he would work in Intelligence is because he thinks it’s a worthwhile thing to do. Even though he’s seen corruption at the heart of the British Intelligence establishment in so many ways and so many times, he’s still there. I thought, ‘Why is he still there?’ He’s still there because he thinks it’s useful.
“As to what’s bad about him? The fact that he participated in a massacre,” Cornell continued. “He’s never atoned for it. His guilt follows him around and karmically, as Shang-Chi, the Master of Kung-Fu, has just observed in the latest issue I’ve written, he keeps setting himself up for a tremendous tragedy to overcome him. He’s haunted by guilt. He can’t get rid of it and he’s yet to do the one thing, whatever it might be that would rid him of it. So the worst things about him are that he never quite got a grip with being the victim, in that his mom was shot in a massacre and then committing one himself. Because he’s an intelligence officer with a sense of duty, he does murder people on a regular basis. That also may weigh on him somewhat but he’s going to keep going.”
One thing Pete Wisdom won’t be going on with in this mini-series is his usual style of dress. “These days he dresses nattily, has had a shave, wears fashionable sunglasses and has got a decent haircut because I was really fed up with the trench coat,” Cornell said. “I think the trench coat has had the piss taken out of it royally in ‘Planetary,’ etc. etc.”
In the six issues of the “Wisdom” series, Pete will find himself faced with a variety of adventures. “It’s three one off stories followed by a three issue arc that also links into those stories,” Cornell explained. “It’s about Pete and his team of super powered intelligence officers, not investigating so much as, coming right smack dab up against matters of the unknown. The first one is faeries attacking Britain. So Pete and his team are sent into Avalon in a combat helicopter with the aim of making them hurt for attacking us.
“In the second one, a strange thing is happening at a military base in Wiltshire,” Cornell continued. “Wiltshire is where the real life incident, the massacre, happened that took Pete’s mother. It actually happened about ten miles from my family home when I was growing up. So, Pete’s story is kind of closely linked to me in many ways. Episode two is our ‘dreams and nightmares coming back to haunt people in Wiltshire’ episode.”
“Episode three is kung-fu in Wales it’s called ‘Enter With Drag On.’ It’s the Master of Kung-Fu and Pete against a bunch of Welsh gangsters,” Cornell explained. “It’s the Welshest thing you’ve ever seen. There will be a Welsh soundtrack. I’m using soundtrack boxes to indicate which Welsh song should be playing at the time. There’s Welsh dialogue. I don’t think Marvel has ever done Wales before. I’ve established Marvel Wales. I expect Welsh readers to be delighted.”
The soundtrack boxes in issue #3 are just one of the many different storytelling techniques that Cornell is employing in “Wisdom.” “I’m trying to use all sorts of storytelling styles,” Cornell stated. “Like the Manga style when somebody is thinking something that’s a little bit different to what they’re saying, you get words of a subtext of what they’re thinking just hanging in the air beside their face. I’m doing that.”
Issue # 2 also features a new storytelling technique that details the background of one of Wisdom’s supporting characters. “John the Skrull is one of Pete’s team,” Cornell said. “The Skrulls being shape shifters, John was part of a Skrull mission in the 1960s to take over Earth by impersonating and substituting themselves for the Beatles. John got swiftly bored and said that Gerry and the Pacemakers could do an alien invasion, broke up the team and has lived as John Lennon ever since. He keeps thinking he should call Skrull Paul and try to get the alien invasion back together. In issue two, I’ve got a page long Richard Lester movie sequence of the story of the four Skrull Beatles as told in a comedy Beatles style movie like ‘Help.'”
Pete has formed a strong bond with another member of his team. “There’s a new love in Pete’s life. Her name is Maureen,” Cornell explained. “Maureen has a particular power and a particular surname that may set things off when people see it, so I’m going to leave that until the issue comes out. Maureen comes into his life and offers him the possibility of redemption; the possibility of everything working out all right because she’s blissfully straight forward except of course – well, I think the reader may conclude that things go horribly, horribly wrong.”
“Wisdom” being published under Marvel’s MAX mature readers line allowed Cornell some freedom to depict Pete and Maureen’s relationship. “It’s very interesting using the MAX format because initially I wrote it as an all ages’ book,” Cornell stated. “Then Nick suggested it might benefit from being MAXed. I used very little swearing because simply Pete was not in situations where it would have happened, but now the gang of Welsh gangsters in episode three use some very colorful language which is very funny to do. The violence was pretty extreme and comic book like anyway, but what I’ve really used the MAX imprint for is to do sexual relationships in some depth. That’s a tremendous freedom. I’ve been able to represent Pete and Maureen’s relationship in a wonderfully direct way and make them into a real couple. I’ve enjoyed the sex immensely [laughs]!”
Maureen and John the Skull are just two of the cast of colorful characters that compose Pete’s team. “There’s also Tink, who is a dissident fairy, who thinks that she is Pete’s girlfriend; it depends on which angle you see it,” Cornell said. “There’s Captain Midlands, the survivor of Britain’s 1940s Super Soldier program, who is an eighty year old man with a body of a superhero. He has got the opinions and a personality of an eighty year old man but the abilities and strength of Captain America. He’s a bit of a tragic figure in many ways.”
Pete and his team mates will face a wide-variety of threats in “Wisdom.” “There’s aliens, faeries, the supernatural and because this is a Marvel book set in Britain we’ve got to do Jack the Ripper,” Cornell explained. “It’s Jack the Ripper in a really weird new way and it all leads up to something enormous that I’ve been wanting to do since I was twelve.”
In addition to a host of weird threats, Pete must also contend with foes within British Intelligence looking to subvert and control MI-13. “The whole story is about a battle for control between various aspects of British Intelligence as becomes clear towards the end,” Cornell explained. “Also, I’m tackling some of what was represented before in terms of Marvel’s British Intelligence set up. There have been so many attempts by British Intelligence in the Marvel Universe to deal with the supernatural; Black Air and the Weird Happenings Organization., etc, etc. I’ve interpreted all of that as there being a tremendous uncertainty about the material at a political level and a desire to find some organization that actually works to deal with it.”
With “Wisdom,” Cornell has had a great time mixing and melding a number of tones: horror, action and humor. “What I really love about this series is Pete’s sense of humor, which is very cynical,” Cornell said. “It lets me comment on really dark stuff that’s happening around him. So, I’m kind of playing off the horror and the humor at the same time.”
Cornell offered high praise to his collaborator who has been charged with bringing all his fantastic and comical elements to life, “Wisdom” artist Trevor Hairsine. “Trev Hairsine is drawing all of this in a wonderful way,” he said. “He’s got this wonderful photo realist style going for ‘Wisdom’ and he’s got these big expressive faces. This is a really emotional book with Pete being kind of distant and evasive at the core of it. But Trev manages to really indicate Pete’s emotions even though Pete wants to keep his sunglasses on and not reveal very much to us.”
You don’t have to know very much or really anything at all about Pete Wisdom to enjoy Cornell and Hairsine’s mini-series, but there will also be plenty of moments for fans of the character that are well acquainted with his continuity. “Those people who have followed Pete’s career will get some hints in the first couple of issues that their continuity is being respected, while at the same time we’ve got three one-off thumping adventures for new readers,” Cornell explained. “But then definitely the continuity comes to the fore and it becomes clear that we’re a continuation here.”
Cornell is hoping that it isn’t just comic book fans that pick up “Wisdom.” “I’ve made an attempt to sell this to my ‘Dr. Who’ audience and my SF audience because I’m also a SF novelist,” Cornell stated. “On my webpage I’ve got a special offer going with Forbidden Planet to buy all of ‘Wisdom’ on a subscription basis. People say that’s something that nobody has ever done before, which surprises me.
“The whole comic basically is for me to try out lots of different things that don’t seem to have been done very much before; from story telling styles to sales styles,” Cornell continued. “I figure it’s a pop medium. This is the big revolution that Mark Millar came up with; the idea that one sells it as pop. So we’ve got a couple of years while we’re the new thing and then the audience will find something else.”
“Wisdom” is a six issue limited series, but Cornell hopes fans flock to the book because he’s chomping at the bit to tell more stories featuring Pete Wisdom and his fellow agents. “What I really want more than anything else is for this to just sneak over the line and sell well enough so that we get an issue #7,” Cornell stated. “I know it’s unlikely, but issues 7-12 is what I’m after. It’s always been my ambition to write like Marv Wolfman on ‘Tomb of Dracula’ or Claremont on ‘X-Men’; to stay on a title forever because back in the day that was my favorite way of reading comics, to go with a particular writer for a really long run. I think hanging around on a major company’s book just through being good at it, is a real skill.
“Writing a Marvel comic was one of my lifetime ambitions,” Cornell continued. “Having done ‘Dr. Who,’ which was another one, I’m running out of life time ambitions now.”