What We Don’t Know Now: Roadtripping Across Saucer Country with Paul Cornell

The bleak days of autumn are a time for both the wandering spirits of Halloween and related holidays, and the free-floating anxieties of election season. This vanishing-point of thrill and dread converges on the campaign trail and in Paul Cornell’s Saucer Country comic book from Vertigo (created with artist Ryan Kelly and in its first collection Nov. 21). A saga of modern UFO mythology and what it says about our minds, Saucer Country follows presidential candidate Arcadia Alvarado, who swears (in private) that she was abducted by aliens. It’s a charged campaign, where her own “alien” origins as a Hispanic American are at issue, and where distrust of government is embodied by a group of competing conspiracy theorists who either aim to undermine or aid her. It’s an epic of the elusive truths America envelops, and the enduring possibilities it represents. Soon after Cornell’s cross-country capsule had passed the half-year mark and a few days before America’s real-life election sent us down the next path of possible futures, I called him for a field report on what’s really going on in the metaphysical America….


Adam McGovern: In some measure this seems to be a book about the battle to preserve or master mystery. The myth-hunter Professor Kidd seems to want to account for the gaps in what we can perceive, while the conspiracy-watching Bluebirds are determined that everything be explained. Of course we see Kidd denying some certainties (the voices in his head) just as the Bluebirds dismiss some inconsistencies. Is belief ever about what you open yourself up to rather than what you want to be true?

Paul Cornell: This stems from two different schools of ufology, the “nuts and bolts” approach, or Extraterrestrial Hypothesis (ETH), which insists that some UFOs are spacecraft piloted by aliens, and the “psychosocial” approach, which insists that UFOs are part of a greater phenomenon, very much part of the human condition, akin to other mythologies. The former is the majority American approach, the latter more European.

AM: Film critic J. Hoberman once said that the JFK killing left the lingering anxiety that we’ve lived the last several decades in a political parallel universe. Is that kind of disillusionment at the heart of Saucer Country? Is it a modern presumption that the universe we’re living in is the parallel one, and the happy, fair, peaceful version is the real thing that’s being kept from us?

PC: Well, that’s the human condition, I think, and always has been. The golden age is either back in time, or just one decision away.

What We Don't Know Now: Roadtripping across Saucer Country with Paul Cornell

AM: This book is one of the most insightful metaphors for trauma I’ve read—the allegories of personal abuse in people’s alien-abduction stories and parables of cultural conquest in Arcadia’s speeches never seem far from the surface. Can people ever get past the symbols that embody their private or historical pain? Do they want to? Is conviction about alien presences, whether reassuring or paralyzing but at least explanatory, the therapy itself?

PC: I think that’s a reading of the story. As I say within the story, one of the things that makes the Greys the only new folk monster to really catch on is that, in so many ways, they’re what we did (starving babies, shaved lab animals, concentration camp victims) returning to get us.

AM: I’ve heard personal accounts of UFO belief spiking in the former Eastern Bloc after Communism collapsed, which I took to be the filling of a vacuum created by the longtime suppression of religious faith. What have you heard about that? Does it change anything about what’s “real” versus what is, in an intuitive and emotionally useful sense, true?

PC: I think that, literally in some cases, UFO mythology has taken the place of various faiths, or been absorbed into them. The movement in the 1980s from their occupants being benign to malign was a very interesting moment in the history of the world, formed not just by pop belief systems, but by the needs of the military industrial complex.

What We Don't Know Now: Roadtripping across Saucer Country with Paul Cornell

AM: Comics deity Jack Kirby always said we shouldn’t assume benevolent motives or behavior from extraterrestrials, considering how colonists have always treated the people they “discover” on our own world. Are rayguns and spacemen the mythology of a hi-tech society, or is that just a new characterization of primal saint-and-devil strains in our imagination, as Professor Kidd at one point intimates?

PC: Jack wasn’t the first to say that, but I think it’s true. But I doubt real aliens would be anything like the folk demons we’ve created to punish ourselves with. Even the lights in the sky aren’t a form of escape, this myth says, every aspect of the world, including the unknown, being owned by obscure evil powers.

AM: Compared to his hazy, loose work on books like Local there’s a stark photojournalistic specificity to Ryan Kelly’s art on Saucer Country even while it’s very expressive in character and imaginative in layout. For this book’s theme was it important to have art that is “believable” while not putting forth any strong single point of view?

PC: We needed a great sense of reality, and a great range of character expression, and that’s what Ryan’s given us. One of the things I loved about Local was how much of a sense of place you got, and I think he brings that too.

What We Don't Know Now: Roadtripping across Saucer Country with Paul Cornell

AM: Without declassifying too much that you’d rather people see for themselves in the comics, what can you tell us about any surprises you encountered in your research and that lie in store for readers?

PC: I rather had to re-research this material for Saucer Country, because I knew it so well already. We’ll be solving some of our mysteries much more quickly than people expect. The Bluebirds are wrong about a lot of things, apart from when they’re right.

What We Don't Know Now: Roadtripping across Saucer Country with Paul Cornell

AM: You’ve got a new cops-and-Cthulhu novel coming out (London Falling, from Tor itself!), which I’m sure will place readers in the mix of vivid civic texture and harrowing imaginary horizons that a comic like Captain Britain and MI-13 did. What would you like to tell fans of your TV or comic work they will recognize, and better yet, never have expected from this new book?

PC: It’s nothing to do with Cthulhu, but it’s about a group of modern undercover Metropolitan Police officers suddenly and accidentally gaining the ability to see the dark magic and monsters of London. I think anyone who knows my work mainly from Doctor Who or the comics will find that same voice here. I’m aiming for an intelligent thriller, that whizzes along but still has some weight to it.

Adam McGovern’s dad taught comics to college classes and served as a project manager in the U.S. government’s UFO-investigating operation in the 1950s; the rest is made up. There is material proof, however, that Adam has written comicbooks for Image (The Next issue Project), Trip City.com, the acclaimed indie broadsheet POOD, and GG Studios, and blogs regularly at HiLoBrow.com and ComicCritique. He lectures on pop culture in forums like The NY Comics & Picture-story Symposium and interviewed time-traveling author Glen Gold at the back of his novel Sunnyside (and at this link). Adam proofreads graphic novels for First Second, has official dabblings in produced plays, recorded songs and published poetry, and is available for commitment ceremonies and intergalactic resistance movements. His future self will be back to correct egregious typos and word substitutions in this bio any minute now. And then he’ll kill Hitler, he promises.


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