Mike Carey Interview
Liverpool's FinestInterview by Garrett Faber
Mike Carey is one of Liverpool's finest. He's a devoted husband and father who worked as a teacher for 15 years. So, where does he get this massive imagination? With such a seemingly normal life, from what recesses of his mind does he pull these fantastically imaginative tales of the strange and unusual? After all, this is the guy who gave Lucifer a voice and took the reigns of the character after Neil Gaiman -- a tough act to follow -- but Carey's run on Lucifer garnered him a Eisner Award nomination. He also did a phenomenal job on a 40 issue run on John Constantine's Hellblazer series. Currently, he's landed the big gig of writing X-Men: Legacy, which would probably seem like a stressful task, however, Carey has this unique attitude when it comes to writing the "big books". He tends to keep close eye to the the politics of the world while functioning as a total writing machine churning out good quality work that people read and believe in.
It was an honor to be able to sit down with him and shoot the shit about comics, life, death and all sorts of random stuff he's probably never been asked before.
Garrett Faber: What time zone are you in?
Mike Carey: GMT - five hours ahead of New York.
GF: Okay, What's the best way to get into comic book writing?
MC: I came in through comics journalism, and also through reading them voraciously as a kid. Only the second of those two is a requirement, I think. I can't imagine coming to comics from the outside, as it were, and trying to get a handle on their tropes. If they never meant anything to you as a reader, you'll probably do a piss-poor job of writing them. And more generally, the only way to get into any kind of writing is to keep on doing it. Most writers I know are obsessives. They don't stop.
GF: Where do you find your inspiration to write a well known book? How do you push a familiar character into new places?
MC: Depends on the character to a large extent, I guess. If you're in a position to pick and choose your projects, then you can choose characters you feel you understand and are interested in. That's not always going to be the case, though: some jobs you take for other reasons than purely creative ones, especially early on in your career. I've always tried hard NOT to be the guy who comes in and sweeps all the established continuity off the table so he can hammer in a flag with his own name on. With someone like John Constantine, what I was trying to do was restate the core of the character as I saw him - the laughing magician, getting by on ten per cent magic and ninety per cent bullshit. With the X-Men it was different, because there are so many established characters in X-Men continuity that - if you're writing a team book - it's very much like picking out the ingredients for a stew. I built a team out of dysfunctional and damaged individuals who had tangled histories with each other, and I used them as the launch point for some stories in a classic mold: the kind of stories where the team is already falling apart under its own internal pressures and conflicts even before anything bad happens to it from the outside.
GF: What's your writing process, how do you plan out a story arc for something like X-Men versus Constantine versus Faker?
MC: I think the best way of describing what I do is fractal. Maybe everyone does it this way, I don't know. I build an arc around a single big idea, and then I progressively put the details in - writing an overview of the whole storyline and then a beat sheet (scene-by-scene breakdown) for each issue. I do that last part even if the editor doesn't ask for it. I'm like the guy in Shawshank Redemption who can't pee without permission: I can't sit down and rough out a script without costing it out by scenes first.
GF: What time do you get up in the morning? From there, what time would you start writing after you wake up, do you spend like 8 hours writing every day? How much time would you devote to one story a day?
MC: I'm up at about seven. We have kids, so sleeping in is something that happens to other people. Having kids also means that my working day is oddly shaped. I work from about 8.30 through to 4.00, then there's a period when everyone's home and I don't get much done, but often I'll clock on again some time in the evening and put another hour or so in. Generally speaking, I work in blocks of at least one day. It's pretty rare for me to work on one project in the morning and something completely different in the afternoon. The exception to that would be rewrites, which can come in any time and sometimes need to be turned around real fast. It's been pretty hectic for the past two years or so - a comic book script to deliver most weeks, and novel or screenplay work running alongside that. I'm an engine driven by insecurity. I mostly just keep on writing even when I don't have a deadline looming.
GF: What were some of your wildest ideas put into comics?
MC: Probably the single most disturbing and out-there thing I've ever put into a comic was a scene in an early issue of Lucifer in which a character was anally assaulted with a broken bottle. Considering the direction that Lucifer took as a series, it was a very strange note to strike in the first story arc - and just one piece of evidence among many that I was trying too hard.
GF: Why did someone get a bottle up their bum?
MC: It was an attack by a group of skinheads on a teenaged Asian guy living in Hamburg - and it was motivated by homophobia as well as racism.
GF: Was there ever a time when you were censored and told to take some thing out of an issue?
MC: Twice. In the "Bearing Gifts" issue of Lucifer, the main character - Sabah Al-Dabagh - was originally written as a Muslim. In fact, he was based on a Muslim friend of mine who I met during my abortive doctoral studies at London University. But even though he was a broadly sympathetic character, and the story portrayed his faith positively, it was felt - I think - that Islam as a whole was too hot a potato to pick up. And the other occasion is just plain silly. I had a punk rock band in a later issue of Lucifer, and when they were on-stage - in a single panel - I had them sing a song whose lyrics went "George fucking Bush married Tony fucking Blair. The church was built from corpses and the cake was pubic hair." It didn't even make enough sense to have a political message, but the names were censored.
GF: What was it like at Vertigo?
MC: It was great. It still is. I think I've worked with all the Vertigo editors now at one time of another, and many of them I consider as friends. The commissioning process can be somewhat drawn out, but that's my only complaint, really. I've done some of my best work for Vertigo, and that's no accident. Also, I owe the fact that I have a comics career at all to Vertigo, so I'm always going to have a warm, fuzzy glow in my heart for the entire imprint.
GF: Whats your relationship with Neil Gaiman like?
MC: Cordial but fairly distant. We talked a lot on the phone during the early days of Lucifer - he was very generous with his time and advice, beyond anything I could reasonably have asked for - but we've only met in person twice. One of those was at a wedding in Spain, and that was great. We had time to hang out and have some long conversations. The other time was at San Diego Comic-Con, so it was "hey what are you that guy who oh".
GF: What was your favorite part of the Rocky Horror Picture Show?
MC: Oral sex shadow puppets - the part where Frankenfurter seduces both Brad and Janet.
GF: How did you get that X-Men gig?
MC: Your guess is as good as mine. I think the X-office always likes to have a wild card in the mix, and I was one of the beneficiaries of that policy.
GF: What were some of your early short stories like? How did you get into writing?
MC: My early short stories were verbose and static. I could always do good description, and I think I always had a reasonable ear for dialogue, but I was lousy at putting story beats together. Working in comics was the best education I could possibly have had, because it focuses your attention on the mechanics of story in a very direct way. It's a side effect of having to work to a fixed episode length and having to intercut effectively within that. I got into writing actual comics scripts through writing reviews and articles for amateur publications - fanzines. But I was always writing huge, unworkable novels off in the background, too. One of them I even submitted to some publishers, but nobody bought it. Then I had the idea of sending out some comics pitches, and I was an overnight success in the space of about eight or nine years.
GF: How do you like the limelight of writing a major book like X-Men?
MC: It's scary at first. Actually it goes on being scary, but it's exciting too. Finding the right level of involvement with fans is important, as is developing a thicker skin. I used to be hugely sensitive to bad reviews and comments, to the point where I'd go away and brood about them. You realise when you do something like X-Men that when you're on a big, mainstream book there's no way out of being both liked and hated. Unless you can get into a position where *everyone* hates you - that's always possible. I've tended to be very lucky in my interactions with fans. The Lucifer board on the old DC/Vertigo site attracted a great crowd - funny, literate, courteous, non-psychotic - and the X-Men fans who post at Mikecarey.net are equally good to talk to. And I can lurk enjoyably on the CBR and UncannyXMen.net boards. Straight to Hell, back when I was doing Hellblazer... I steer clear of the boards that are full of frothing maniacs.
GF: What's your favorite food?
MC: I'm torn between Thai and Mexican.
GF: Did you ever watch the show Neon Genesis Evangelion?
GF: Have you ever gotten into a fist fight?
MC: Not since I was a kid. I'm a huge wimp. I bumped into some guy on the street four days ago - literally bump, thud, stagger - because he wasn't looking where he was going and neither was I. And we did the classic "well who the fuck are you, make my day, call me a bastard" thing, squaring off against each other as though we were going to wade in and get bloody, then just turned around and went on our way. Neither of us really wanted to fight. He was with his girlfriend, too, so maybe he was waiting for her to step in and say "Come away, Jimmy, he's not worth it!" but unfortunately she didn't. So we just skulked off, feeling ridiculous.
GF: What were some ideas you considered for X-Men that you just dropped or thought "this shit is nuts!"
MC: We were going to have a mummudrai from outer space come and impregnate Cassandra Nova, with the litter of young mummudrai gestating in the X-Men's brains. That would have been fun to do, but Joss Whedon got to Cassandra before I did. There's never been anything I fantasised about doing but held back from because it was too crazy.
GF: How do you effectively deal with writers block?
MC: I only have one coping mechanism, which is to hang up and try again later. Fortunately it doesn't happen to me very often.
GF: Do you keep a journal?
MC: I used to. Then I realised that journals can actually be dangerous because they constrain your memory to the things you've bothered to write down. You forget all the stuff in between. That wouldn't be so bad in itself if you were totally honest in the way you record things in a journal. But most of the time you're not. I destroyed all my adult journals about ten years ago, and I've never picked up the habit again.
GF: Who was the last famous person you met?
MC: British fantasy novelist China Mieville.
GF: What was your worst physical injury?
MC: I was almost blinded in one eye when I fell into a stairwell full of broken lumber and my eyelid was pierced by a nail.
GF: If you were to make a music video for a song that had no music video at all, what song would you choose and what would the video be like?
MC: He Tried to Escape, from Midlake's Bamnan and Slivercork album. The video would be done as though it was a scene from an early black and white movie - like something Georges Melies might have made.
GF: How much of yourself is put into your stories, do you have instances where some dialouge is a direct example of of something once said to you?
MC: I've only done that once. The Hellblazer story Exposed, which appeared in one of the 9/11 tribute books, was directly based on a conversation between two guys in a card game I was involved in. They were both accountants working at different insurance companies, and when the talk turned to 9/11, one of them asked the other that question - "Are you exposed?" Meaning, did you have any share of the insured risk, and do you now have to pay out on it, or did you dodge the bullet? It sounded incredibly cold-blooded to me at the time. probably it wasn't, it was just shop-talk, but anyway I made a story out of it and had the guy who said it be an obnoxious, shallow, self-centred son-of-a-bitch. (Sorry, Andrew, no offence). More generally, though, I put a lot of my own experiences into stories - especially into the Castor novels, where most of Castor's backstory is my own childhood and adolescence in Liverpool. I need to watch that, in fact. Some of the conversations between Castor and his older brother in the fourth novel, Thicker Than Water, originally referenced some stuff which - on second thought - I decided to leave out for reasons of self-preservation.
GF: When you first started writing, how did you decide what stories to tell?
MC: I don't want to sound pretentious, but Leonard Cohen was right when he said it's not really a question of what you sing - it's whether or not you'll sing at all. Fantastic literature covers an amazing range, from sci-fi through magic realism, heroic fantasy, urban fantasy, horror. That's the territory I'm comfortable in, and when I think of story ideas they always fall somewhere in that domain.
GF: Do you have any kinky turn-ons like humping in public?
MC: Nope. Sorry. I'm British. My turn-ons mostly revolve around stodgy food.
GF: Do you think theirs too much emphasis on superheros in the mainstream comic world? People don't usually read superhero novels do they?
MC: That's what's fascinating about them. The superhero story is one of the few genres that was developed for and in the comic book context and still works best there. Superhero movies and TV shows prove that you can export the aesthetic, but the best superhero stories are still comic books. It is a shame, I guess, that the American market is so very much dominated by superhero books. It would be great to see the best books in other genres getting the same sales as Fantastic Four and Batman. The weird thing is, that's exactly what happens in other countries. Everyone's got their own addictions. The Norwegian comics market is dominated by funny animal books, with Disney titles selling to, like, a third of the households in the entire country. France and Belgium have a big emphasis on what they call "tranche de vie" books, which are kind of like the comics equivalent of "literary" fiction, and so on.
GF: Have you ever hit someone over the head with a barrel or felt the strong urge to?
MC: Felt the urge to? Yes. The biggest fight I ever got into was at a gas station, where a guy swerved in front of me to get to the pump. It was ridiculous. We ended up wrestling at the gas pump and having to be separated by other drivers. Mostly I sublimate my anger into sarcastic comments, because I'm pretty scrawny and don't win fights. I like the Welsh martial art of Llap Goch, though - that's where you take out your enemy before he even knows you exist.
GF: What could each individual do to make the world a better place?
MC: For starters, not do profitable things that leave a lot of other people dead. But the logic of capitalism runs in the other direction.
GF: Do you believe in coincidence or is it some higher power at work?
MC: I don't believe there's any ordering principle in the universe. Or if there is one, I'd love for his lunch break to end some time soon and for him to get on the f*cking case.
GF: Worst nightmare you've ever had?
MC: I was in a huge warehouse with rats jumping up at me, taking bites out of me. I was trying to find the door but I was more or less blind because it was so dark, and I had to keep one hand over my eyes and the other over my throat.
GF: Can you fly?
MC: Yes. But only club class.
GF: If you had to chill out with John Constantine for a week, what things would you do together?
MC: If we ever had to spend a lot of time together, we'd probably drink and play cards - and quietly hate each other.
GF: What about Lucifer?
MC: Lucifer doesn't chill.
GF: What about the Joker?
MC: Torture. Murder. Cookery classes.
GF: What about John McCain?
MC: Torture. Murder. Mmmm. This is starting to work for me.