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Exploring the finality of frontiers in THE ENGLISH ASTRONAUT with PAUL CORNELL and LAURA HELSBY

Andrew Irvin , Interviews Editor, caught a glimpse of the new 2000 AD offerings and The English Astronaut, recently concluded after a run from Prog 2367-2369, was an immediate stand-out for his latest conversation here at Comic Book Yeti.

 

COMIC BOOK YETI: Paul and Laura, it’s a pleasure having both of you join me in the Yeti Cave today. How’s everything going back in the UK?



LAURA HELSBY: Hey mate! Thanks for having us. Not bad not bad, it's cold and rainy so not much to report, Tories suck, same old same old really. 


PAUL CORNELL: I’m only just back from rainy, stormy L.A.! 



CBY: Now, in full disclosure of conflict of interests, part of why I snatched this interview from the pile when Rebellion sent over their latest batch of available creators to chat with was my enduring appreciation of Laura’s work (so much so that I commissioned a cover for one of my own forthcoming projects). Can you both elaborate on how you two came to know each other and begin this collaboration?



PC: I was assigned Laura by 2000 AD, and then met them at Thought Bubble, so there’s a lot of synchronicity going on here!


LH: Aw shucks! Well, I have, of course, been a fan and admirer of Paul's work for a while, (who's hasn't!?) But this actually all came about for me when I emailed Matt at 2000 AD asking if I could pass on his email to a very talented writer friend looking to pitch. I gently reminded Matt in that email that I'd love to work for 2000 AD again, and less than an hour later I got a reply offering a 3 part gig with Paul! It didn't take me 2 seconds to snatch up the opportunity. I love working for 2000 AD. The first time was a dream come true and I couldn't resist another chance to show what I can do, add Paul's unique vision and well, how could I say no?



CBY: By way of Twitter, I’ve been able to bear witness, Laura, to you picking up this project and your exciting start with 2000 AD. Paul, your journey with Rebellion started much earlier, writing for the Judge Dredd Megazine back in the mid-90’s, and you’ve had an extensive career both in and out of comics, writing for Marvel, DC, and publishing in all forms through a variety of publishers. What led to The English Astronaut finding its home in the pages of 2000 AD?



LH: Paul will know better than ,I of course, but there's a certain bizarre wacky-ness to his work here that just screams 2000 AD! But yes, it's genuinely been an honor to grace the pages of this hallowed comic, as a British creator it really does feel surreal to say I've been published in it. It's like the pinnacle of British sequentials in my humble opinion, so yeah, still buzzing from it all. Pinch me I'm dreaming!! 


PC: I’ve just never quite felt that I’d really worked for actual 2000 AD, because all my previous full-length strips were in the monthly Judge Dredd Megazine, and I’ve only ever done small fill-ins for the comic proper. So this was me trying to get myself included in this grand UK comics tradition!



CBY: I'm glad I get to bear witness to your first collaboration in its pages. Paul, I saw you’d mentioned The English Astronaut as an homage to Michael Moorcock. For the uninitiated, can you unpack his influence on you, personally, and the broader UK sci-fi community over the decades? Laura, have there similarly been any central artistic influences on the project thus far?


PC: I’ve always been an enormous fan of Moorcock. He was at the punk end of prog, and made all these galloping connections across the multiverse (something he kind of invented) by way of resonances in dialogue and character. Early 2000 AD presents a very specific form of rebellion against consensus reality and I wanted to revel in some of that.  


LH: Hmmm, I can think back to reading the script the first few times and Paul's specific mention of Bowie, 70s Doctor Who costuming and title sequences… the flight suit for example was based off the original cybermen suit (as instructed by Paul!)


I think for me, I definitely always had this sort of retro-futuristic vibe in mind that I feel translated to the page.



CBY: Retro-futurism is certainly a good label under which to file this comic. I know this is ostensibly unrelated, but I was also drawn to the title of the comic, given my fondness for the Cory McAbee space western film from 2001, The American Astronaut. This English Astronaut, Major Thomas Anderson - for those of us outside the UK - what makes him (and his adventure) most decidedly English



PC: It’s also a take on Moorcock’s The English Assassin, which Matt unconsciously typo-ed the title of the piece to be on the contract. He’s a traveller who sees all of what happens to England from the 1970s to now and experiences the vast futureshock of that disintegrating empire. The vibe has been very different in Scotland, Ireland, and Wales, hence the Englishness of it all.  


LH: The fact that the very first thing he does upon time travelling is check out the price of beer and be appalled by it! 



CBY: The sticker shock on a pint of beer compared to 40+ years ago would certainly enough to cause wholesale futureshock, I'd imagine. There’s also an important apparent nod to one of my all-time favorite time travel-related productions, Quantum Leap, and I caught a few other references that made me chuckle throughout. The premise of this story allows you to get exceedingly playful with the potential for taking the scenes in fun, new directions off the beaten path. How many of these visual cues were scripted out and planted, and how many arose in the collaborative process as the two of you discussed the production of each page?



LH: Ha! Those were all Paul, unless I subconsciously added any others. He was very specific in his references and Easter eggs, and I was more than happy to oblige. Paul knows his stuff and what imagery he wanted to evoke, so I wanted to stay true to that best I could. 


PC: It’s all imagery and references, really, because that’s kind of what life is now like. I can’t help but feel that I grew up amongst the real, but, since we started to realise that we’re actually in charge of whether or not this planet kills us, perversely, like extinct species burying their heads in the sand, we’ve actually lost track of the real.  



CBY:  Yep, planetary existentialism really gives your sense of agency a hard twist, doesn't it? Given the structure of 2000 AD, and the short, serialized nature of publications, how does this different in the planning and pacing for both of you from your other work? Does it change how you parcel out action and conflict in storytelling, and what sort of opportunity for heightened tension and visual reveals does it allow that other, consolidated, formats may not avail you as creators?



PC: I love just having two cliffhangers, and needing to make a complete story in that space.  


LH: As the artist, despite its total size as almost a full one issue comic, I just handled each part as they came, three shorts. Which is different from my usual process: I'd usually have the whole story in front of me to work from. 


But getting sent the scripts bit by bit as I was working was a change, and a fun one! Allowed me to focus in on each part and I got to be surprised by the twists and turns just like you! Best of both worlds! 


As for reveals, it was pretty cool to get to draw three different “endings” as it were, three cliffhangers, and they're all the wackiest, weirdest things I've ever drawn in my life so, I owe it all to Paul, haha!



CBY: High concept sci-fi often suffers from taking itself too seriously. Obviously, Paul, with your ample experience with the Doctor Who universe, you haven’t fallen into such predilections here. When dealing with a story of potentially apocalyptic scope, what key elements did you both include to balance the irreverence with the gravity of the setting in The English Astronaut? How did this process serve as a reinforcement or departure from prior work you’ve both been involved in?



PC: There is often seriousness in my work, and I think there is here too, under the surface, in that this is also, as Peter Watts put it about my novella Rosebud, ‘a scream disguised as a giggle.’  


LH: I think, as soon as I read the script, I knew the tone of story I was in, and, as you say, it's Paul. He doesn't take anything too seriously, I knew from the get go what the vibe was going to be, I just tried to channel a camp, cheesy, fun sort of thing, I think the fun I had drawing it helped to show that. For example, creating fake comics in the comic book store, or naming the giant cat George, after my partner's childhood pet and best friend, immortalised forever!! Finding fun in the little things is important. 


I did get a little serious when I got TO DRAW JUDGE DREDD THOUGH, sorry, got a bit excited there. I wanted to nail that part, so serious head was put on - not anymore though, just scream to anyone who'll listen about how I got to draw Dredd!! 



CBY: Yeah, the enjoyment had in putting this together really comes through to the reader, I think. So with part three of The English Astronaut published in 2000AD Prog 2369, the story has, at least in its current arc, concluded. What other projects do you both have in the works that you might be able to tell our readers a bit more about?



PC: I have a lot of comics on the way this year!  But right now just about the only things I can tell you about is that there’s a bookstore/comic store version of The Complete(d) Saucer Country coming out this autumn from Syzygy/Image and myself and Rachael Smith have a Zoop comedy whodunnit called Who Killed Nessie up for funding in late March!


LH: Ooh fun, love this part, okay. So, I'm going to be in Chris Mole's wonderful and weird anthology ‘Secrets of the Majestic’, all based around the men’s toilets of the famed hotel in Harrogate where the convention Thought Bubble takes place. It's sort of an inside joke, so if you think it's weird me being excited about a toilet anthology, you just haven't witnessed the glory that is the Majestic toilets!! 


I'm also going to be featured in Dave Cook's Killtopia anthology, “Nano Jams”, as well as Asa Wheatley's famed series ‘Sagas of the Shield Maiden’. A handful of covers and Variant covers too so watch this space for more info!


CBY: Awesome news from both of you! I love what Syzygy is doing, and I had a blast interviewing Dave over Killtopia last year, which is an absolutely badass sprawling cyberpunk title. I haven’t given much space to discuss the rest of the team, but can you fill us in on how Matt Soffe and Jim Campbell got involved with the coloring and lettering duties, respectively? We’ve had Jim visit the Yeti Cave before, and I know they’ve worked together previously. Having both been in the mix for 2000 AD issues on other projects previously, how did they fit into the equation this time around?



PC: Under Tharg’s bonnet, and I don’t mean the ruby.  


LH: Praise be to Tharg for their appointment! … this was all sorted behind the scenes for me, only discovered who was on colours/letters when I got my comps but I could have guessed who it would be! Both so well known in the Progs, legendary droids as they are!



CBY: Part of the in-house production machine, eh? To put aside The English Astronaut, once our readers have gotten the chance to check it out, what comics and other media would you recommend they give their attention? What’s been inspiring you lately whenever you’re not working on your own material?



PC: I’m a great fan of the TV adaptation of Foundation, and in terms of comics, I’m loving the Kelly/Lanzing run on IDW’s Star Trek.  


LH: No one shout at me but I haven't been reading as many comics as I should, as I'd like to, recently… 


BUT! 


I always have to recommend ‘The Autumnal’ by Daniel Kraus, Chris Shehan, Jason Wordie and, speak of the well dressed devil, Jim Campbell!! A true gem of the Horror Comics genre and I tell everyone and anyone to read it when I get the chance.



CBY: Paul, Laura - thanks for the recommendations and making time to chat today! I look forward to seeing how The English Astronaut unfolds, and for our readers, please share any portfolio, publication, and social media links you’d like everyone to check out!



Paul: 


LH: 


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