With the fourth edition of the annual Malta Comic Convention just around the corner Wicked Comics have a chat with influential writer, Mike Carey who will be one of the guests to this years’ Malta Comic Con.
WC – You’ve been into comics since a young age. Which comic book stories have inspired you most through the years?
MC – Man, that would be a long list! When I was a kid, the Fantastic Four stories of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Then Claremont’s X-Men, when I first read it. Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol. Swamp Thing. V for Vendetta. Sandman. Love and Rockets, and Heartbreak Soup. Larry Marder’s Beanworld. I could go on. Ask me at the show, and I’ll come up with a list three times as long as that.
WC – Before you became a full time writer you were an English teacher. What made you make the jump into the comic industry career?
MC – Writing was something that I always did as a hobby, alongside teaching, so it wasn’t as big a jump as it might appear from the outside. I carried on teaching right up to the point where I had a monthly book commissioned (Lucifer), then quit. It’s hard to quantify the reasons, but it boils down to this: writing felt like something that would be more fulfilling than anything else I could possibly do. If there was a chance of doing it full-time, I had to take that chance.
WC – As a writer, what inspires you most?
MC – Other people’s stories, I guess. When I read a book or see a movie or TV show that fills my mind to the exclusion of everything else for the time when I’m watching it. Stories are much more vivid than reality to me.
WC – Various people claim to have ‘great ideas’ for stories and comic books alike yet they get stuck when they try to write at length. What would you suggest to these people to develop their stories into proper scripts and books?
MC – You have to take planning seriously – not just broad strokes, ut beat by beat. Have a sense of where your characters are going, and you shouldn’t have any trouble envisaging the events that will get them there. When I was in my twenties, I wrote a lot of really misshapen novels, because I never bothered to think before I wrote about. I wrote novels the way a farmer would fire a shotgun to frighten a fox – just aiming up in the air and making a noise. It was writing comics that taught me to plan.
WC – You have worked both on on-going series but also graphic novels. Which is your favourite and why?
MC – I love both for different reasons. Graphic novels allow you to get in, tell a cool story, and resolve it perfectly in one go. Long-form storytelling lets you do incredible slow-build stuff, delayed pay-offs, repetition with variation. It’s horses for courses, in the end. Some stories cry out for space, others need brevity.
WC – When you are working on an on-going series during which you have to respect deadlines, do you prepare more than one script at a go or not?
MC – I never have. I submit one script, get edit notes on it, and then go on to the next. But actually, I like there to be a fallow period between scripts, where I work on other stuff. You get weird side effects if you try to compress the process. Well, I do. The story becomes a little weightless. I lose the sense of it, and I have to back off.
WC – What do you think are the most precious tools for a creator nowadays?
MC – Brain, eyes, ears, the same as always. But a good desktop PC and a good laptop or netbook are also indispensible. And the right software, which for me would definitely include Dropbox. When I was writing The Steel Seraglio, with Lin and Lou, we couldn’t have survived without Dropbox.
WC – As a writer you’ve successfully written for multiple mediums do you feel more at ease in a particular medium? Why?
MC – There are certainly some media that turned out NOT to be in my comfort zone, and I’m unlikely to revisit them. I had no feel for radio plays, for example. I did it twice, found it interesting without being particularly enjoyable, and felt like twice was enough. And game writing, although it can be fun, comes with big frustrations because the process is mediated in very different ways from novels, movies or comics. That said, I love comics, prose and screenwriting equally, and now – finally – feel equally at home in all three. It took a long while to get to that point with screenwriting. Until recently, I was just feeling my way.
WC – Some comic book writers prefer to come up with very detailed scripts while others prefer to leave more creative freedom to the artist. Is this something decided by the creator or by the publisher? Provided that the choice is yours do you stick to one type of script or vary?
MC – Again, I’d have to say it depends. If you’ve worked with an artist before, and you’ve got a good feel for each other’s styles and approaches, then you can write more sparingly and give minimal cues. You’ll always tend to write fuller script for an artist you don’t know, because the artist likewise won’t know your shorthands and will probably appreciate a more explicit statement of the effects you’re aiming for. With Peter Gross, I write a lot less prescriptively and he feels a lot freer to interpret what I’ve written. It’s a much more collaborative process.
When I started to write, I assumed that every last visual detail had to be obsessively nailed down. I learned, over several years, what not to say, and I think that’s an important lesson. I remember having Paul Grist turn down the invitation to work on an early script of mine because he said he didn’t want to be reduced to a robot!
WC – As a writer, what do you seek in an artist who will illustrate your story? Can you tell us the artist you’ve worked best with in the past and with whom you would like to collaborate in the future?
MC – My two favourite artists to work with, no question, are Peter Gross and Mike Perkins. Both incredibly skilled visual storytellers, and both really great collaborators. Outside of that, I’d say that what you look for is a style that will express the story – and therefore, the criteria will change depending on what kind of story it is. The example that always springs to mind here is Jim Fern on Crossing Midnight. There were only ever two ways to go with the art on that book, either very realistic and detailed or very impressionistic and chiaroscuro. We went with realism, and Jim gave us a Nagasaki with a hard, neon edge to it – a very forbidding and unforgiving place, which was perfect for the bleak tale we had to tell.
WC – Throughout your career you’ve written a number of issues for X-men, of which the ongoing X-Men: Legacy. Do you find it challenging that you have to write scripts for characters that have featured in a lot of different plots and side stories and have been written by many different authors? From the X-Men universe, which character/s have you enjoyed writing most, and which didn’t?
MC – Yes, it was challenging – but it’s something you get used to if you write extensively for mainstream comics. Most of your work will use other people’s characters. So you start be immersing yourself in what other people have done with those characters and trying to find the core, the kernel – or at least some aspect that you can run with, and that doesn’t contradict what was there already. I loved writing Rogue, and she’s probably my overall favourite X-Men character, but I’m saying that after writing her for all those years. At other times, other characters have been my favourites. And I’m very strongly attracted to the more obscure characters, always – Ariel, Lady Mastermind, Omega Sentinel. It was cool to bring them into the spotlight.
WC – You run on Hellblazer has been one of the longest and most acclaimed. Would you ever consider going back and making another run in the future?
MC – I’d love to. John’s an amazing character. And there are some good precedents for it – Delano coming back for Pandemonium, Ennis for Son of Man and so on.
WC – When you work on such titles as X-men and Hellblazer, do you discuss the plot and where the story is going with the publishers before you start writing or after? Are you given pointers as to where the story ought to go or are you given freedom to explore and create new nuances and plots for established characters?
MC – There’s always a degree of negotiation. And any editor will want to see at the very least a plot outline before they tell you to go to script. On X-Men, where there are usually half a dozen other creative teams who might be using your characters, while you’re borrowing theirs, there has to be a lot of pre-planning and a lot of co-ordination across the line. That’s a big part of the editors’ job, in the X-Men office – as it would be, say, in the Batman office at DC. But the converse is also true. Editors know that you’re not going to do your best work if they tie your hands behind your back. They’ll give you steers on certain points, but they generally won’t give you orders or ultimatums. I was able to do almost everything I wanted to do with my X-Men cast, and where I wasn’t, there was generally a valid reason.
WC – Did you still follow comic book series that you stopped writing and were taken up by other writers? Did you find it difficult to walk away from a plot or character? Do you give tips or notes that you had prepared in advance for the next writer taking up the series where you left off?
MC – I try to keep up, but it’s hard – I’m way behind on most of the books I follow. I read Denise Mina’s run on Hellblazer, which followed mine, and most of Andy Diggle’s. I’m behind on peter Milligan’s, which is frustrating because I know he’s using some of the supporting characters I created.
Tips and notes – generally not. A new writer is going to come in with their own agenda. If they ask what you had in mind for this character or that one, obviously you can have that conversation. More importantly, if there’s something they desperately want you to set up, you can sometimes do it.
WC – You are also well known for your work on the series ‘Lucifer’ featuring the character also known as Morningstar from the series created and written by Neil Gaiman’s ‘The Sandman’. This run in fact won an Eisner Award too. What attracted you to this character most?
MC – I wrote Lucifer as the embodiment of individual will. He’s not evil, but he is amoral – and so he will commit terrible acts without any qualm or hesitation. Basically he follows his own impulses wherever they lead, without reference to how anyone else will be affected. Which, when you think about it, is the source of most evil in the world. By contrast to Lucifer’s solipsism, mere sadism is a little wet and underwhelming. But there’s something perversely attractive in a character who refuses to bend, compromise or accommodate, and it’s fascinating to follow that character and see where that attitude leads.
The other crucial aspect of Lucifer was that I wrote the book as a generational drama. The central relationship was the father-son relationship between Yahweh and Lucifer, and the central theme was Lucifer struggling to free himself from his father’s influence and define his own course and identity. In that sense, I wrote him as Everyman.
WC – You have on occasion written scripts based on stories written by others such as Neverwhere amongst others. Is this easier or harder to do? Speaking of Neverwhere what can you tell us about your collaboration with Neil Gaiman?
MC – It’s certainly different. Adaptations, so long as you like the original text, are really exciting and fun to do. You have to dismantle the story to see how all the pieces of it fit together, and then reassemble it in a different form so it works in another medium. It’s far from straight, scene-by-scene translation.
I’ve done it three times now – twice from novels (Neverwhere and Ender’s Shadow) and once from a movie (Fantastic Four). And I’ve also translated my own short story, Face, from comics form into prose form. The movie adaptation wasn’t that much fun to do, because the story wasn’t hugely interesting to me. All the other times, I’ve had a blast.
Working with Neil was a huge pleasure, because he’s so generous with his time and ideas and so flexible and open-minded. When we wanted to do something that went right against the grain for him, he told us and we didn’t do it. When he just had doubts about it, he usually said “go for it and see how it comes out”.
WC – In the Felix Castor novels there is a strong element of plausibility with regards to the way the paranormal subject is dealt with even if it’s done in a fictional context. Have you ever had any paranormal experiences yourselves?
MC – No, never. My mum saw ghosts everywhere, but failed to get a second witness for any of her sightings. I’m skeptical about ghosts that take human form, but open-minded about the existence of non-physical levels of reality that border on our own. I’m a rationalist, but not a materialist.
When I write magic and the supernatural, I try to find an internal logic that works for me. Obviously, in a horror story, you won’t always share that logic with the reader, because the numinous and the inexplicable has a power of its own, but I like to know what’s going on even if I don’t lay it out in the story. I hate magic that just does what the plot needs it to do, whether it’s internally consistent or not.
WC – Is there any chance of seeing the Felix Castor novels adapted as movies? Who would play Juliet?
MC – I would love to see that! And we did sell the movie rights, so it could happen. I’m lousy at casting, though, and it’s very hard to cast Juliet because ideally she should change according to who she’s talking to, becoming their own personal sexual ideal. Which means that for me she’d most likely look like Gina Torres, even though that’s not how she’s described in the book.
WC – Do you tour conventions often? What are you expecting from the Malta Comic Con?
MC – I’ve done a fair few. The UK ones, obviously, and San Diego, New York, Orlando Mega-Con. Semana Negra and Aviles in Spain, Lille in France, Raptus in Norway. On the basis of that very small sample, I’m expecting that Malta will be a party for people who like the same kinds of things I like, and that I’ll have a great time. You walk into a Con, and you get to be a fan-boy again. It reminds you why you do what you do.
WC – Any projects in the pipeline you’d like to share with us? What can you tell us about them?
MC – I’ve just finished a zombie novel that I’m very pleased with. The working title is Death and the Maiden. It’s set about a generation after the zombie apocalypse, with the last few uninfected humans working towards a cure – but the crucial thing is that it’s told from the point of view of a zombie. A very particular zombie, with a very particular take on what’s happening.
I’ve also been talking to the Boom Studios guys about a superhero book, and it looks like that’s close to getting the green light. The working title there is Suicide Risk.
And my movie screenplay, Dominion, is now out with sales agents. Next step is casting. How cool is that?
I’d be very happy to say a little more about these things at the show, but I’m superstitious about putting too much in print before they’ve been announced…
WC – Would you like to add anything else?
MC – Thanks for having me!