Abducted by Aliens? Paul Cornell Talks Saucer Country

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Of all the new Vertigo series debuting this month – one each week, to be exact – Saucer Country by Paul Cornell and Ryan Kelly is the one most deserving of the moniker ‘All-New, All-Different’. It’s also the title that has intrigued this comics journalist as one of the comics to watch for 2012 since it was announced at NYCC 2011.

Billed by Cornell as “The West Wing does The X-Files”, Saucer Country revolves around up-and-coming politician Arcadia Alvarado, who may or may not have been abducted by aliens after she’s announced that she’s running for President of the USA. A political thriller with a sci-fi twist? There’s not a comic out there that comes close to that description, so if your reading list is in serious need of some diversity, this book should be on it come March 14.

BROKEN FRONTIER: With your approach to comics storytelling and creative instincts, it makes one wonder how come you didn’t do a Vertigo ongoing any sooner. Was it about waiting for the right idea at the right time?

PAUL CORNELL: I've been knocking on Vertigo's door for quite a while, and they finally gave in!  

BF: This then wasn’t the first book you pitched to them? What made them bite this time around?

CORNELL:  I pitched a whole bunch of ideas at once, and I guess this one just felt right.

BF: Saucer Country is part of a wave of new launches for Vertigo, leading to a chatter of Vertigo getting a revamp or even a New 52 treatment of its own.

CORNELL:  I have no idea if anything like that is happening with the line, but it's certainly a new time for them, a new lease of life. I think Fables is the best comic in the world, so more of that, with Fairest, is always a good deal, and I'm a great fan of other work by the New Deadwardians guys.

BF: I’m sure it’s not a coincidence that the book starts in New Mexico, because of the Roswell connection. But doesn’t the ‘Country’ in the title suggest this will be a book that takes a good look at America’s fascination, if you will, with alien mythology?

CORNELL: Absolutely.  And New Mexico is very much the aerospace state, with all sorts of space happenings both mysterious and concrete.  It's a very interesting place to start the book (and we will visit Roswell, but not right away), but by no means where we'll stay.  

BF: And now for somewhat of an unavoidable question: when you researched UFO mythology, did you become more or less of a believer?

CORNELL: I'm a Fortean, which means I stay apart from the whole question of belief.  The most important thing about this fascinating and diverse mythology isn't whether or not it's 'real', it's what it says about modern culture.  I've been researching this title since I was a child, nervously turning over the pages of 'real life UFO' books.

BF: Overall, you’ve been dabbling with sci-fi long enough that the thought whether there’s life in outer space must have crossed your mind (even if none of those species use flying saucers)?

CORNELL: Like everyone else, I'm pretty sure there must be.  And the maths even suggests they should have been through here a couple of times.  But that sort of maths often assumes the aliens are working tremendously efficiently and doing everything right, which certainly isn't true in our own case.  I find the generalized science arguments against an alien presence on Earth to be lacking, but I find the way that everything we know about 'them' seems to reflect us to be indicative of mythology rather than fact.  

But then again, I don't think many of the experiencers are lying, and there's some startling stuff in the details.

BF: Such as?

CORNELL: Things that ring true, that people would never make up because they're too at odds with reality.  Aliens who give out scones, surprisingly accurate star maps.  Not that that means I'm convinced these are aliens in spaceships.

BF: For many great stories in whatever medium, the hook for the most part acts as the driver, but it’s actually the personal dramas and events striking the core characters that truly define these tales. Where do we find Arcadia at the start, and can you hint at the evolution she will be going through?

CORNELL:  She's the Governor of New Mexico, trying to be friends with her on-the-slide ex-husband, about to announce that she's running for President, when she's 'abducted by aliens'.  She doesn't know exactly what happened, and it takes her a while to realize that something did.  But when she does, she decides to run anyway, to use her new political power to find out the truth.  She tells only a few close advisors about her experience.  We'll see her get stronger along the way, more ruthless and cutting, because she's going to need to be to win all her battles.

BF: Doesn’t telling other people – especially in the world of politics – hold the risk that it might be used against her down the line?

CORNELL: Indeed, and we immediately get into that.  It's one of the tensions amongst the lead characters.

BF: It’s funny that the solicitation text describes Arcadia’s staff as “quirky”, because that’s not exactly the kind of people to surround a serious presidential candidate. Can you explain what’s meant there?

CORNELL: Just some real people, like the staff of The West Wing.  And Professor Kidd, the sociologist she hires to talk sanity to her about UFOs… well, he might be the worst person to talk sanity to anyone.  

BF: Politics will play an important role, obviously, but because of the alien angle, to what extent will religion? And if so, how far behind are the Scientologists?

CORNELL: I should think that religion is way down our menu, part of our metaphorical stew, as it were.

BF: In the second panel on page one of issue one (shown above - ed.) we see shapes of what might be aliens, only to be replaced by security officers two panels down. How important is that panel in terms of setting the tone of the series’ framework as a whole? I assume you’re going to play the “the less you show, the better” card a lot?

CORNELL: We're not a series about definitive aliens with ships and names and guns and plans.  We're a series about encountering the numinous, about the grey areas of mythology.  I always say we're a political thriller about the romance of the UFO.

BF: Is the ‘did she or didn’t she get abducted’ hook going to take all the way to the end of Saucer Country to get resolved?

CORNELL: I think it's more a case of what 'being abducted' means.  We do have a solid ending in mind.  

BF: The ‘we’ is you and Ryan Kelly. You must be really happy with an artist with a knack for drawing scenery and topography as proved on books as Local, New York Four and New York Five, and Northlanders?

CORNELL: The 'we' is the royal we of the title's staff, editors included.  Ryan's amazing, he has such a gift for drawing reality, both in terms of people and of landscape.

BF: Before I leave you, have you spoken to Peter Milligan about his plans for Stormwatch? Is that book in good hands?

CORNELL: I'm an old-time fan of Milligan, having loved his Shade the Changing Man, so I don't think the title could be in better hands.

Saucer Country #1, by Paul Cornell and Ryan Kelly, goes on sale March 14, 2012 from DC Comics/Vertigo. Mark your calendars.

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