Shiny Shelf

Watching the robot detective: Matt Wilson on Copernicus Jones and the Supervillain Handbook

By Mark Clapham on 02 April 2012

I first encountered Matt Wilson under his alter-ego of King Oblivion PHD running the International Society of Supervillains website and twitter feed. Since then he’s been intensely productive, involved in numerous comedy sites and twitter feeds, taking over the co-hosting and editing of the War Rocket Ajax podcast, and launching his robot-noir webcomic ‘Copernicus Jones’ with artist Daniel Butler.

Matt has come full circle, writing once more as King Oblivion PHD for his first book, ‘The Supervillain Handbook’, which comes out this week from Skyhorse Publishing. I started our interview by asking a thuddingly obvious question:

Shiny Shelf: So – why supervillains?

Matt Wilson: Here’s the practical reason: When I started the ISS with a friend of mine, I needed to be able to write under a pseudonym. I had been writing comedy at, and on a few occasions I actually asked them to take my name off of stuff I wrote, not because I thought it was bad, but because I was working as a political reporter at a newspaper at the time and didn’t want my editors seeing my name attached to a story where I was joking around about Sarah Palin or whomever. Political editors tend to frown on their reporters stating any opinion about politicians, and that’s particularly true if the statement is about which one’s more evil.

I went with the supervillain theme and pseudonym because I just always tended to like the bad guys better, going back to probably all those hours of ‘Masters of the Universe’ I watched as a kid, where I sort of secretly rooted for Skeletor. Even now, I love Spider-Man and Batman, but Dr. Doom is easily my favorite character in comics. The villains always seem to have more fun.

Shiny Shelf: Supervillains in most comics also lose most of the time. That’s a fairly good basis for comedy, I would think: a character with grandiose ambitions who constantly fails?

Matt Wilson: There’s certainly more comedy value in losing. That, combined with how needlessly complicated most supervillain plots are, and you’ve got a goldmine.

Shiny Shelf: The ISS site has a wide variety of different gags and articles, not all of which would transfer to print easily (or, in the case of the movie recaps, legally). So what’s in ‘The Supervillain Handbook’, and how did you approach bringing King Oblivion PHD to a longer form?

Matt Wilson: The book only has a handful of pieces from the website, thrown in as sidebars or supplements. The meat of the text is all original stuff, and it reads as a straight-up parody of how-to or self-help guides. It goes through assessing motivation and goals, how educated you should be, developing a persona, finding a lair and henchmen, getting powers and/or equipment, what setbacks you’ll see. It’s quite thorough. King Oblivion PhD is the ‘author’, so he’s the one giving all the (terrible) advice, and generally talking down to the reader.

Shiny Shelf: If I recall correctly, you have a background in journalism? How does that day job influence your comedic/creative writing, or are they totally different disciplines to you?

Matt Wilson: It’s a pretty badly kept secret that every journalist really wants to be a novelist, and I’m no exception, though I tend more toward comedy. I think the best part of being a reporter, in terms of having an effect on other writing projects, is that it exercises the muscle. I write every day. The content of what I’m writing is quite different from what I write in my free time, but choosing interesting words, building concise sentences and having a consistent voice are all still part of the process.

Shiny Shelf: Let’s move on to your noir webstrip, ‘Copernicus Jones’. You mentioned the title Copernicus Jones, Robot Detective on WRA for a while before the strip actually emerged. How much did you have planned before Daniel Butler sent you his sketch of Copernicus, and the strip became a real proposition?

Matt Wilson: The title ‘Copernicus Jones: Robot Detective’ started as a joke. I used to spend a lot of time on a comedy forum where we’d take old comics and rearrange the panels, put in new speech bubbles, stuff like that. Something I did with those comics a lot was rename the character something goofy, and give them a funny job, stuff like Rick Dickensworth: Male Secretary. I came up with the name Copernicus Jones through that, and for a long time it was just a joke bouncing around in my skull.

It was only about two years ago that I thought about making it into an actual comic, and I just sort of wrote a script out of the blue. I meant for it to be a full-on noir parody, but in the process of writing it turned into a more serious story. I had the script for the first issue of the comic sitting around for a few months before I mentioned it on War Rocket Ajax and met Daniel, who was just a godsend for the comic. I can’t imagine a better artist for it.

Shiny Shelf: Are you a big noir reader?

Matt Wilson: I’ve read the basics: Hammett, Chandler. I’ve got some gaps. There are a ton of Charles Willeford books I need to get to. I have to admit the lion’s share of my knowledge about noir comes from movies, and I think that comes through in ‘Copernicus Jones’, which I think reads as a take on film noir more than anything. I love the genre, and I love all the recent attempts to modernize it or parody it. Drive is such a great neo-noir. And for parody, I can’t recommend ‘Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid’, with Steve Martin, enough.

Shiny Shelf: Following your work from The ISS, to War Rocket Ajax, your twitter feeds and tumblr not to mention others, it seems like you’re involved in a lot of different web projects. What do you see as the advantages and disadvantages of launching ideas online?

Matt Wilson: The big disadvantage is that it’s such a big pond. Almost everybody is a small fish, because there aren’t any gatekeepers. There are millions of people who think they’re the funniest person on the Internet. With all that chatter, it’s hard to get anyone to listen to YOU. But it isn’t impossible. Keeping at something often means you can build an audience, and projects often lead to other projects as you make connections and meet like-minded, talented people.

The biggest advantage, and this is really a flip side of the coin, is that there’s basically no risk. If you start a blog and it just doesn’t strike a chord, you can retire it with nothing lost except the time you invested in it. Same goes for a webcomic. And, really, you don’t even really have to care if you have an audience or not. If you like doing it, keep doing it. All you have to pay is your time and a few bucks for a domain. In a lot of cases, you don’t even have to bother with a hosting fee.

Shiny Shelf: You mentioned earlier that every journalist really wants to be a novelist, and that seems doubly true in comics, where I can think of quite a few columnist and commentators like Gail Simone who have moved into being quite prominent writers. With Copernicus Jones ongoing and the Supervillain Handbook out, you seem to be moving to writing longer work. Is that an ambition of yours, to perhaps move from shorter gags and being a commentator to writing books and comics as a longer term gig?

Matt Wilson: I’d certainly like to, yeah. I’ve got a sort of high-concept superhero pitch ready to go right now. But, of course, moving ahead with any of that isn’t totally up to me.

Shiny Shelf: And finally… War Rocket Ajax came second to my other favourite comics podcast, House to Astonish, on a chart of comics-related podcasts worth listening to. Any chance of aligning the time zones and hearing Paul and Al on one of your roundtables? I think that would be something a lot of people would like to hear…

Matt Wilson: After that list came out, Chris Sims and I had a little back and forth with them on Twitter. I challenged them to a trivia contest and they sort of demurred, but the challenge stands. THE BALL IS IN THEIR COURT.

‘The Supervillain Handbook’ is available from Amazon US on 25 April 2012 and from Amazon UK on 7 June 2012.

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By Mark Clapham

Mark Clapham is a Devon-based writer and editor. You can find out more about him at the egotistically named

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