Saurav Mohapatra Presents:
Mike Carey's list of credits is long and impressive. LUCIFER. X-MEN. GOD SAVE THE QUEEN. Novels. He took time out of his busy schedule to chat with Saurav Mohapatra about what's going on with him these days.
SM: Who is Mike Carey and how did he end up writing comics?
MC: Ah, so we’re starting off with an easy one. Cool. I know this.
Mike Carey is a guy who was born and raised in the North of England, then migrated South to London in his late teens – at a time when hundreds of thousands of Northerners were doing the same thing. It was a really marked historical moment: Liverpool, my home city, has lost half its population in the space of about twenty-five years.
After I finished my degree (English Literature), I became a teacher at post-16 and adult (community college) levels, and did that job very happily for more than a decade. I got into writing comics by writing reviews and articles for amateur fanzines, and then pitching ideas to UK and American indie publishers. It was a long, drawn-out process – years and years – but that was mainly because I was sort of coy and hesitant about the whole thing.
SM: How do you approach writing in general and comics in particular? Is there any secret Mike Carey method? (considering the prodigious output you've produced in the variety of genres and formats you write in)
MC: I’ve said this before, but it’s true so I’ll say it again. I’m damaged goods. I work as hard as I do out of a huge sense of insecurity. I was driven as a teacher, and I’m equally driven as a writer. When I’m not working, I’m thinking about work.
Putting it that way, though, makes it sound kind of like an affliction, when in fact I love what I’m doing and get a huge amount of fulfillment from it. There’s nothing like writing – well, nothing like creating. I think it must be the best job there is.
Is there a Mike Carey method, besides working yourself up into a nervous sweat? No, I don’t think so. The closest thing I’ve got to a method is that I DRAW every issue before I script it – strange little pencil drawings that nobody except me ever gets to see. That’s the most important part of the process, creatively: I decide camera angles and write dialogue at that point, so when I script I’m mostly just transcribing stuff from the scribbly breakdown sheets. There’s some fine-tuning, but not much.
SM: How did LUCIFER come about?
MC: I wrote a comic named INFERNO for Caliber, and I sent every issue as it came out to editor Alisa Kwitney at Vertigo, along with an eloquent begging letter that said basically “Gee, I’d love to work for you”. She was kind enough to reply, and then to offer me a gig writing the first SANDMAN PRESENTS miniseries – THE MORNINGSTAR OPTION, as it became. The idea of writing a LUCIFER monthly came a year later, more or less. I remember sending that pitch to Karen Berger (Alisa was away on maternity leave by that time) and then sitting back wondering if I’d overreached myself and whether the sky was about to fall. She called me back the next day to say it was game on.
SM: What are you working on now?
MC: A lot of stuff, as always. X-MEN LEGACY, of course. ENDER’S SHADOW – an adaptation of the Orson Scott Card novel for Marvel. A plan for the sixth CASTOR book. A TV screenplay for an animated series. A movie outline, for UK producers Slingshot. And a new book for DC Vertigo, THE UNWRITTEN, which will team me up with Peter Gross for the first time since we worked together on LUCIFER!
SM: Tell us a bit more about The Unwritten?
MC: It’s the story of a guy – Tom Taylor – who’s world famous, but as a fictional character. When he was a child, his father, Wilson Taylor, wrote a series of incredibly successful novels about a boy wizard, Tommy, based on his son and named after him. Then after writing the last book, Wilson mysteriously disappeared: he hasn’t been seen since. Now, grown up, Tom resents this legacy and tries very hard to be his own man, but finds that he fails at pretty much everything he attempts: so, much to his own self-disgust, he keeps being forced back onto the convention circuit, making a living signing his father’s books and being a part of the Tommy Taylor publicity machine. Then one day he’s at a con and his world – pathetic as it is – falls apart when a young grad student confronts him with evidence that he’s not who he thinks he is. His birth certificate is forged, his social security number belongs to someone else, and all the photos of him as a child turn out to be of someone else.
So Tom has to try to find out the truth about himself, which means trying to find his missing father. But there’s a shadowy cabal that seems intent on trying to stop him – by killing him, if necessary. And the evidence starts to mount that Tom may actually be the fictional Tommy Taylor, somehow made flesh.
It’s a story about story, ultimately: a reflection on the part that fiction plays in our lives, and in our world. It’s a wild ride, and we’re very happy with how it’s turning out.
SM: As you're adapting Orson Scott Card's Ender stories for Marvel, how is that different from writing your own stories? Do you approach adaptations differently from the stories you've conceived and created yourself? Is there a conscious/subconscious change in the way you write in both cases?
MC: Oh yes, I think there is. Certainly a conscious change, and probably a few subconscious ones as well. An adaptation starts out as an intellectual challenge, because you begin by dismantling the source novel into its component parts and thinking about how best to rebuild it within the comic book context. I love that part, because inevitably you learn a lot along the way about how the story works – which in turn makes you think about how your own stories work. Don’t get me wrong; you always have to be aware of structure, and thinking about structure, when you’re writing a comic: that’s imposed by the fact that your canvas has a predetermined size. But an adaptation makes you hyper-aware.
SM: How is writing a prose novel different from/similar to writing a graphic novel from your perspective?
MC: It’s very similar to writing an OGN, and very different from writing a monthly book. The key thing, really, is the degree of freedom and control you have over the creative process. Scripting a monthly book is like driving a fourteen-wheeler: you launch yourself on a given vector, gradually accelerating, and once you’re up to speed you’ve only got limited options when it comes to changing direction. Specifically, once the art is at the inking stage – and realistically, even in most cases when it’s been penciled – you can’t start messing about with what’s there: it’s set in stone. So if you’re writing a six-issue arc, then by the time you get to part 3, part 1 is immutable. You can’t suddenly decide to seed a plot twist (unless it can be done in dialogue alone) or introduce a new character.
A novel is all of a piece, and it has a very long and very flexible deadline. You live with it for half a year or more, and at any point in that time, you can tear out whole sections and start again. You can afford to write it heuristically, if I can put it that way, letting your direction change as you find the heart of the story, which may not be where you thought it was when you started out.
SM: Who do you consider the greatest influence on yourself as a writer and as a storyteller?
MC: I don’t think it’s possible to single out any one name. In comics I normally mention the holy trinity of Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman and Grant Morrison. In prose fiction, I’d list people like Ursula LeGuin, Roger Zelazny, Michael Moorcock and Mervyn Peake.
If you put a gun to my head, and forced me to whittle it all down to one name, I’d probably say Enid Blyton. The first fantasy stories I ever read where The Faraway Tree and The Wishing Chair – and I loved them so much I was permanently drunk on them. This was at age seven, and it was the start of a lifelong infatuation with fantasy, so there’s a lot that can be traced back to that root.
SM: When you take on a project like X-Men or Fantastic Four which already has an established mythos and character definitions, what do you look for in yourself as a writer to bring fresh perspective / kickass narrative (which let me be the first to point out, you always succeed in) in the story?
MC: Thanks for the compliment. It’s always hard to define your own creative approach – you sort of define it by doing it. I’m very respectful of continuity, but very reluctant just to re-tell old stories. I like to build up my own supporting cast around existing characters, or to rotate in forgotten characters in new combinations. With the X-Men, I thought long and hard about character dynamics, and tried to choose a line-up that offered maximum potential for internal dissent and friction, on the principle that a team like that would always be threatened by its own dysfunctionality even when it didn’t have any external enemies. With Hellblazer, I followed an instinct that had served me well on Lucifer – surrounding the alpha male protagonist with strong women for him to strike sparks off. With Ultimate Fantastic Four, I went back to the purest of wells – Lee and Kirby – and tried to catch some of the spirit of their “cosmic” stories, which were the ones that had always given me the most pleasure as a kid.
SM: Last but not the least, If you could talk to Mike Carey of twenty years ago, what three things would you tell him to do different vis-à-vis comic book writing?
MC: I’d tell him to get his finger out and start earlier. I spent so long faffing around the edges of the industry! It wasn’t exactly wasted time, because it was time spent in the world, doing stuff, but I still sometimes mourn the untold stories, and wish I’d got down to it when I was still in my twenties.
I’d tell him to aim better. I sent superhero pitches to Karen Berger, long after she’d stopped having any connection to the DCU: that’s a pretty basic error.
And I’d tell him that you can’t write for a painter the same way you do for regular inked art. My first big break at DC was a painted book – Sandman Presents Lucifer, with Scott Hampton on art, which was a spectacular showcase to be given straight out of the gate like that. And it must have driven Scott crazy to have page after page with six or seven panels on it, and not to be allowed the space to spread his wings. Actually, he managed to spread them anyway, but I’m surprised he didn’t whack me in the head with an easel when we finally met.
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