My Run-In with Paul Cornell (Apologies Included)

Hey, hey, everybody.  So Fencon has come and gone, and it was a fantastic time.  If you live in the D/FW area and are a science fiction / fantasy fan and aren’t checking out Fencon when it rolls around you’re missing out.  That’s all I’m saying.

There was a lot of great stuff at Fencon this year, and I’ll get to it in some later entry.  Right now, I’m pretty damn tired, and I’m about to keel over.  But there was something at the very end that I thought is worth talking about.

The last panel of the con was called 70 Years of Marvel Comics.  I was on it.  As were several other cool people.  And Paul Cornell, a writer at Marvel.  I mention Paul Cornell specifically because I’m hoping that, by some chance, he might stumble upon this entry and possibly read it.

First of all, I wanted to apologize.  Near the beginning of the panel I got pretty heated, and while I’d like to think I didn’t cross any lines, I also want to be sure and say that Paul Cornell handled himself with grace and wit.  He was patient with my angry fannish ways, called me on some bullshit when I deserved it, and listened to my valid points when they came up.  The guy was just a class act (probably doesn’t hurt that he has that cool British accent), and I’m sure he’s sick of taking crap from fans.  No doubt, he was more patient than I would be if I had to put up with the constant fanboyish ways of we comic book readers.

Some great points were brought up though, and some I think are definitely worth thinking about.  Now, Mr. Cornell isn’t here to express himself, so I’ll do my best to offer his point of view because he had some great points.  But I’d also like to explore my own afterthoughts on the panel.  And we’ll do that first because A) it’s my blog and B) if Mr. Cornell can’t be here to speak for himself, he should at least get the last word.

The most heated point of the discussion came when I mentioned Tigra’s brutal treatment at the hands of Marvel.  Personally, this bugged the crap out of me and it still does.  And it still cheeses me off that she’s little more than someone to be kicked around for dramatic effect.

Mr. Cornell said (with some justification) that Tigra is a C-List character, and the fact that she wasn’t killed for extra drama is more than I had any right to expect.  On that point, he’s absolutely right.

He followed this up by suggesting that Joe Quesada, Marvel’s current Editor-in-Chief is tired of feeling like the fans seem to care more about the characters on the paper than the real people behind the scenes.  And he’s absolutely right about this as well.

And here’s where I get a little contentious again.  Just a little bit.  Because if the writers at Marvel (or anywhere for that matter) have a hard time accepting that the lives of their imaginary creations mean more to the fans than the creators, then I just don’t understand what they think their job is.  I have no reason to doubt that Joe Quesada is a fine human being and a good person.  But that’s all I really do know about him, and most probably, all I ever will.

Tigra, on the other hand, is a real person to me.  I know her.  I care about her.  She’s more real to me than a stranger on the street.  Heck, there are people I see every day that I know less about.  And she’s just a C-lister.  She’s not important.  But, as a character, as a person, she’s more realized, more concrete, than anyone in the Marvel Comics offices (at least to me).

And like it or not, these fictional characters, their lives, their welfare, their hopes, their dreams, mean more to most fans than any real person involved in their creation.  Now, I’ll admit that if The Mighty Robot King appeared before me and said that I had to choose between no more Tigra stories or Joe Quesada getting struck by lightning, Tigra would lose that competetion.  But barring some sort of Twilight Zone-ish twist, I am far more invested in Tigra’s happiness than Joe’s.  (Sorry, Joe, but it’s the harsh truth.)

Which brings me to my point.  Comic books are shared universes.  Not just shared by the writers, but by the fans themselves.  And while I don’t think the stories should be held hostage by the whims of the fans, I also have to say that to abuse a character and then act surprised that some fans get upset is confusing to me.  Because just because a creator has no affection for a character, that doesn’t mean someone else doesn’t.  And odds are, no matter how obscure the character, no matter how C-List they might be, someone really, really likes that character and will be annoyed, even possibly enraged, to see a character they enjoy sacrificed for (sometimes necessary) dramatic effect.

(I’ve actually gotten used to this myself since almost all my favorite characters are B and C-Listers.  I may be the only person in the world he hated that Quasar had to die so that Annihilus could earn his villain cred.)

I’m reminded of a funny story when the Jason Todd (then an unpopular Robin) was killed.  The editor at DC walked into a bar, and when he said what he did, someone turned to someone else and said, “Hey, this is the guy who killed Robin!”  It was then that he realized he wasn’t just an editor, but a keeper of something larger than himself.

I do think that it wouldn’t hurt for the writers at Marvel / DC / etc. to keep this in mind.  You aren’t just writing stories, gang.  You’re playing with our friends and family, and if you screw it up (or if we think you screw it up) you’re going to end up catching a lot of hell for it.

Of course, let’s also be fair.  You can’t handle every character with reverence and delicacy.  You’d never be able to tell any stories that way.  But you also can’t just say, “She’s C-List” as justification because that can end up being even more irritating.  Imagine someone comes up to you and says you’re favorite aunt / best friend / personal hero is irrelevant.   You’d be pretty irked, I imagine.  And Mr. Cornell was definitely irked when he assumed I was attacking his friends at Marvel.  (I wasn’t, and if that’s the way it came across, I apologize again because there’s no reason for personal attacks in this situation.  And these attacks do indeed happen, so he can hardly be surprised for expecting one.)

And now for Mr. Cornell’s excellent points:

He observed that the accusations of chauvanism, racism, & other assorted sensitive topics can easily become entangled in these conversations and thus derailing them.  He’s absolutely right on this.  While there are indeed complex issues often at the heart of these discussions, these are larger than any single comic book company and the icons they represent.  Too often, it’s easy to pull out the big guns of Prejudice & Sexism to make a point and then end up confusing every element of the talk.  (It’s like pulling out the Nazi card.  Just because it shuts people up, it doesn’t mean you’re right.)

Mr. Cornell also said that Marvel perhaps has a tendency to follow the market and sales too closely, but that this was difficult to avoid.  Because a great comic that sells three copies a month, no matter how great it might be, isn’t really doing the company any good.  He’s absolutely right on this too.  It’s easy to play Monday morning quarterback, to say “If I was running Marvel Comics, here’s what I’d do!” and then sit back, smugly, thinking how easy it would be to save comic books if only we were given the chance.

And that’s bull.  Because Joe Quesada and his staff don’t want to destroy comics.  They want to make good comics AND make money.  And, like all of us, they judge their success on what draws an audience.  Or at least what justifies their jobs by what sells.  And this isn’t “selling out” or innately “bad writing”.  It’s necessity.

(As a writer myself, I struggle with the question of whether I want to be commercial or true-to-myself or if these two things are even in conflict.  And I have the advantage that I’ve finished my book by the time it’s come out so even if it bombs, I don’t have to second guess that particular work, whereas a writer of a serialized story might discover at any point that, hey, you’ve put your heart and soul into this story and nobody gives a damn.)

Once we got through the rough patch at the beginning, it appeared that Paul Cornell and I had a lot in common in actual comic book tastes.  (Both 70′s comic book fans, both thought it would be great if comics could keep their mature sensibilities and be appropriate for all ages at the same time, and both of us wished new characters could be allowed to develop and flourish.)

So anyway, I hope that I represented Mr. Cornell’s opinions properly.  He really did seem like a terrific, sensible sort, and I have no reason to suspect that he is nothing other than a dedicated, thoughtful, hard-working writer out to create the best stories he can.  (Seriously, check out the man’s resume.  He’s working his butt off.)

More importantly, I respected his thoughts, and while I rarely change my opinion (like everyone) he gave me some things to think about.  I certainly know that I won’t be so cavalier in my criticism (intentional or not) of the people behind the scenes at Marvel, who, despite any gripes I might have with their decisions, are just trying to make a living like the rest of us.

Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,

Lee

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