Creator Spotlight: Mike Carey
By Dan Horn
February 14, 2010 - 12:44
The legendary scribe gives us the scoop on The Unwritten, his opinion of Ozzy Osbourne, a Batman story that may never see the light of day, and much more!
Dan Horn (CBB): Before we talk about your current Vertigo series, The Unwritten, I’d like to ask you a few questions concerning your career-spanning ups and downs.
Mike Carey: OK.
CBB: You’ve talked about your first break into comics completely falling apart just as it seemed to be taking you in the direction you wanted. What kind of impact did that have on you as an aspiring writer, and how did you recover?
Mike Carey: I guess it was fairly depressing, you know? I felt like I had my foot in the door. But, then the door slammed shut, and I was lucky to keep my foot. But, it happened several times. So, yeah, it was discouraging, but I think everybody goes through this. Everybody goes through that sort of one step forward two steps back stage. If you have the kind of personality that’s going to be put off by that, then you won’t make it as a creator, I think. It’s just in the nature of things that the first few steps you take are going to be tentative, and you’re going to have many many setbacks. I just kept on plugging. Most of the time I was sending stuff out and not getting responses or I was getting polite brush-offs, or rejections, or whatever. But, at that stage, writing was more of a hobby for me than anything. I wasn’t seeing it as a way to earn a living. So, I kept on writing, and I kept on sending my stuff out, and little by little (although it didn’t really seem like it) I was edging toward the goal.
CBB: So, I know you’d probably rather not talk about your days writing for Malibu’s Rock-It Comics—
Mike Carey: (Laughing) Yes.
CBB: --But were you a fan of either Ozzy or Pantera at the time, or were their books more or less to get a little more work under your belt?
Mike Carey: If I’m honest, I wasn’t. I’m not. I never really was a big heavy metal fan. I like Ozzy. Ozzy’s hard not to like. He’s an endearing character. But, about his music, apart from a few favorites like [Black Sabbath’s] “Iron Man,” I could take it or leave it. And, Pantera--I just flat out did not care. So, really, yeah, it was just a case of saying yes to anything that would get my name put on the credits page of a book.
CBB: When Malibu was absorbed by Marvel, and you were, as you put it, “taken out behind the barn and shot,” where did you go from there?
Mike Carey: Initially, nowhere. That sort of left me high and dry. But, not for the first time, the artist Ken Meyer Jr. came to my help. He introduced me to the Caliber guys. He’d started drawing for Caliber on series like Kilroy [Is Here], and he introduced me to [Caliber Press editors] Jim and Joe Pruett and [Caliber Press founder] Gary Reed, and I started getting gigs there. Caliber were bringing out a new line of books which they called the New Worlds: they were sort of loosely, thematically linked titles rather than a shared universe. And then I wrote one of those, Inferno, and that, ultimately, was what bridged the gap between my Malibu work and my DC work.
CBB: You’ve accredited your Caliber comic Dr. Faustus with getting you the job on DC/Vertigo’s Sandman Presents: Lucifer miniseries. What a fantastic comic!
Mike Carey: Thank you.
CBB: But, you say, even the Lucifer mini sort of fell short of your expectations. How so?
Mike Carey: I think at that time Vertigo were trying to catch the same lightning in the same bottle. You know, they’d had this amazing hit with Sandman, justifiably. It was a book that redefined comic book horror, comic book fantasy, and comic book storytelling in a lot of ways. And they wanted to keep that going. Obviously Neil Gaiman had finished telling the story that he wanted to tell. Vertigo tried with The Dreaming, and then with Sandman Presents, and then with Lucifer to provide a bridging point for Sandman fans to sort of keep them in the game [and] coax them to read more. None of those books really succeeded on anything like the same scale as Sandman. And about the time Sandman Presents came along, I think there was a certain portion of the reading public who were disposed to see the very act of producing a sequel to the Sandman, or a spin-off from the Sandman as suspect and cynical in itself. I think [Sandman Presents:] Lucifer suffered from people thinking, “Well, this is just a cash-in, basically. They’re just sort of squeezing the last few dollars out of the franchise.”
CBB: I see. Well, I think you definitely proved with the Eisner Award-nominated Lucifer ongoing series that you weren’t just squeezing dollars out of the Sandman franchise. Before that series, my reading habits were conventional to say the least. Lucifer really opened my mind to a whole new scope of comic-dom that rivaled all other forms of literature and art in its excellence.
Mike Carey: That’s very cool to hear. Thank you.
CBB: What was your creative process like on a book like that?
Mike Carey: It was a steep learning curve for me because it was the first time I had ever written a monthly book. It was the first time I had ever written anything that was longer than three or four episodes. I guess Inferno was five episodes, but they were spread over several years. I can remember having a long telephone conversation with Neil at the time. I said, ‘I am thinking about pitching a Lucifer monthly.’ And he said, ‘I think that’s a good idea, and it would be a good discipline for you. I think you will learn a lot from it because, until you have written a monthly book, you can’t know from the outside what a strange mixture of planning and improvisation it involves.’ And I said, ‘Well, surely that’s not true of Sandman. Sandman--it has the appearance of being planned all in one piece. It’s a coherent epic.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, but even so, there are things that just happen because they happen, because a great idea hit us along the way or we got interested in following this character or that character.’ And that was definitely my experience with Lucifer, that some things were meticulously planned and some things just happened--just sort of wonderful chance events. So, in that sense my process was plan the big arc but be prepared to deviate from the plan if something more interesting comes along. All of the Gaudium stories, all of the stories about the Centaur clan, those were all just synchronicity. We had characters who we wanted to explore further. The ‘Morningstar’ arc, which is kind of like the climax of the whole series, wasn’t planned out in spectacular detail beforehand, but we knew that was where we wanted to end up. We were going to have a second war in heaven, with Lucifer fighting on the side of heaven, and Elaine becoming God. That was something we always intended, right from the start. And other bits of architecture kind of got built on the fly, as it were.
CBB: That’s interesting to hear because reading those books it really seems like almost everything about them is meticulously crafted.
Mike Carey: I am glad we give that impression. If I wanted to go back and rewrite them, or if there was anything I could change, I would bring Fenris in earlier--Fenris the wolf, the embodiment of destruction. I think the fact that he turns up after issue 50, after the introduction of Lilith, is a flaw. I think his role should be signaled earlier.
CBB: Even with all your success at Vertigo, your series Crossing Midnight was cancelled after only 19 issues.
Mike Carey: Yeah.
CBB: What do you think happened in terms of the book’s faltering popularity, and do you think you will ever revisit the story?
Mike Carey: That’s a tough question. I think a lot of things happened. But if I am honest, part of the fault definitely lies with me. It was a book that took its own sweet time explaining what it was doing. You could read the first issue, or even the first couple issues, and not have a clear idea in your mind what kind of book this was going to be. I think that’s a luxury that you just don’t have these days. I think readers expect--I'm not saying they expect big thunderous thrills--but they expect to come away from the first issue with a clear sense of direction, even if the creative team fake them out later in the book and end up going somewhere else. Like 100 Bullets--it starts off as one thing and becomes something different. But everyone after reading the first issue thought ‘Oh, yeah. I get this. I get the hook.’ Crossing Midnight I think was just too slow out of the gate. We learned our lesson when we came to plan the first issue of Unwritten. I made damned sure it hit all of the beats I wanted it to hit and left people with, if nothing else, a sense of “it’s this kind of book.”
CBB: From there, when I first heard that you were taking over scribing duties on Marvel’s X-Men series a few years ago series a few years ago, I was absolutely ecstatic (no phonetic puns intended).
Mike Carey: (Laughing)
CBB: How did that come about exactly--you writing for that series?
Mike Carey: You know, I still don’t know. Partly it was that I went to San Diego around about 2003-2004 and I kept meeting up with Marvel editors who said, ‘If you are ever free and want to write on a superhero book then give us a shout”. And I really did want to write on a superhero book. It was an itch I was dying to scratch. I pitched various things in the DCU with very little success. So when I got back to the UK, I was then exclusive with DC, but when my exclusive ran out, I did phone Axel Alonso, and I said, ‘I am available so what have you got?’ And they gave me some Ultimate books which was very cool. I did the Elektra miniseries. I did a fill-in on Ultimate Fantastic Four. I had a really good time doing that stuff. Then, I got a call from Mike and he said he wanted me to write X-Men. I hadn’t been expecting that at all--to be put on such a front line book. He said, ‘If we give you this title, where will you take it. Who would you like to be in your team, and what do you envision yourself doing?’ It was kind of an invitation to pitch, so I put together a dream team, a very dysfunctional dream team, and a plan for the first year. They said, ‘Yes, that's cool. Let’s do it.’
CBB: How has writing a mainstream superhero series differed from writing more independent and niche titles?
Mike Carey: You realize very quickly that you’re in a very different kind of arena, and that the things that you do will automatically and instantly get more attention. Writing Lucifer, we used to have a very friendly little group posting on the DC message boards back in those days, and we had all sorts of running jokes. There were probably like twenty of us, and there was this sort of gag that I was the headmaster of Lucifer Morningstar High, and I would set homework assignments. And people would send in their responses, and the winner, as judged by me, would get to choose a word, and I’d have to put that word in the next issue of Lucifer. So, we had all of these weird kind of in jokes. As soon as that first piece of artwork for X-Men was released--the one that has Mystique and Iceman (the kiss)--suddenly there were literally dozens or even hundreds of posts on Comic Book Resources and Newsarama, all of the big comic news sites, discussing who was going to be on my team and so on. I was thinking, ‘I’m just not used to this. I don’t know if I can cope with this.’ That part of it was kind of scary, but having said that, I’ve had a totally positive experience with X-Men fans: they’ve been really friendly and really supportive, and it’s been cool. I guess it just puts you on a different stage. The other kind of weird thing that I didn’t realize was that for every character that you’re using there is somebody out there for whom that character is the character. The fans by and large have gotten more emotionally invested in those characters than the creators do. And that’s true even if the creators are fans, because you never love everybody in a franchise like the X-Men with a cast of thousands. There are some characters that you really respond to and really think are cool, and for me that would include Cyclops, Beast, Rogue, Iceman, Cannonball, Husk, Mystique. And there are other characters that you look at them and you think, ‘Well, I just don’t get what’s cool about that character.’ You’re playing with other people’s dreams when you make radical changes to a character’s status quo. There’s somebody out there who’s going to be ecstatically happy, and there’s somebody else who’s going to be dismayed and in despair.
CBB: You have already said that you’ve pitched a few ideas to DC but to no avail. I would absolutely lie, cheat, and steal to get my hands on a Batman story arc written by Mike Carey.
Mike Carey: There is one. I wrote a three part Detective arc. It was called ‘Grave Matters.’ I just realized about two months ago that I no longer had the script. Somewhere along the way I deleted that file. It went in a stack. I think it was when they were changing over editors and they had a lot of stories that they commissioned, and they decided they were just going to use up a whole load of other stuff before they drew the new stuff. And then of course there were changes to the status quo, and you couldn’t refer to characters that were no longer in continuity, so it would have to be substantially re-written before it could be used. And it never was used, sadly. I was pretty proud of it. I think it was a good story.
CBB: Do you think we will be seeing any superhero comics for DC in the near future from you?
Mike Carey: No, I don’t think so. I mean, at the moment as for company owned stuff, I’m exclusive to Marvel.
CBB: You are also an accomplished fiction author as well [check out Mike’s Felix Castor novels], and your new series The Unwritten is an interesting mix of prose and comic book conventions. In your experience, how does writing a novel differ creatively from writing a comic?
Mike Carey: In some ways, it is a lot easier. Certainly in coming to writing prose from writing comics, I found that comics had given me a skill set that was hugely relevant to writing prose in that writing comics teaches you to plan out story details very obsessively. In any given issue, you’ve only got 22 pages to play with and you have to make sure that within that you have a structure that works, that you end if not a cliff hanger then at least a dramatic moment. You are thinking in terms of ‘What does this scene bring to the whole? Is it worth spending two pages on this?’ And so on. But structurally, you have to be very aware of what you are doing with comics. Writing a novel you can afford to be a little bit more laid back, because, OK, you are making a lot of the same decisions but you’re not pouring the story into a vessel of a set size. So you can add a scene here. You can move a beat from here to there. You can certainly spend a chapter giving the back story of a minor character and so on. You’ve got so much more freedom that, you know, actually, coming from comics to prose you just get drunk on the power. You just find there’s almost nothing you can’t do.
CBB: Your current project, The Unwritten, has to be one of the most highly acclaimed titles I’ve seen released in the past year. Yet you seem like one of the nicest and most pleasant men in the business. How do you stay so down to earth despite the accolades?
Mike Carey: Thank you for the compliment. I guess I have the kind of personality where when people say nice things about me, I don’t believe it. Do you know how it is when--do you remember getting your first job?
CBB: Yes, yes.
Mike Carey: Do you remember the feeling you have on the first day and through the first week and maybe into the first month, where you’re thinking, ‘I’m basically faking this--I’m just faking it until I can put it together or make it real’? The most you are hoping for is that people won’t call you on it. So you fake it effectively enough so that people will fall for it, will believe in you. I’ve never really gotten over that feeling. There is always a part of me that feels like I am faking it.
CBB: Your relationship with your artist and co-conspirator, Peter Gross, looks to be an archetype of healthy collaboration. You’ve been working together since the early days of the Lucifer series, and you’ve even turned your own website into a jointly operated website. Can you tell us a little more about Peter and the creative chemistry between the two of you?
Mike Carey: Yeah, Peter is an amazing guy. He is one of my best friends in the field and is one of my favorite artists as well. [He’s] one of my favorite creators to work with. We do seem to hit it off both professionally and personally. He is an incredibly flexible and versatile artist, and he is also a great visual story teller. Sometimes, those two things don’t go together. Sometimes you can get people who can do amazing, beautiful pages but the pages don’t necessarily flow in an organic way, and the story telling isn’t necessarily sort of embedded as you would like it to be, or reflected as you would like it to be. With Peter, the story always comes first. He is able to sort of marry the story to the most beautiful and expressive and powerful visuals. You always get more than you expect from Peter. He always transmutes in wonderful ways. And I realized this right from the start on his first arc of Lucifer, ‘The House of Windowless Rooms.’ It called for a cast of very, very weird and grotesque characters and some extraordinary settings, and the details of the settings ultimately had significance to the plot. And he just didn’t bat an eyelid. He just rolled with all of that, and it worked. And I realized, ‘This is the guy, this is definitely the guy we want to keep on the book.’ And now it’s hard to imagine what Lucifer would have been like without his contributions. I think that was the turning point, really. On The Unwritten though, we’ve taken our collaborations a stage further, because we really are plotting the story together. We are co-creators and co-plotters, which is very rewarding. It’s opened up all kinds of possibilities and it takes the book in some really exciting directions.
CBB: Definitely in some very exciting directions! In The Unwritten you also do a lot of genre bending. We’ve seen Harry Potter-esque fantasy, slasher horror film, and meta-physical mystery thriller. Where does your inspiration come from when writing something this diverse?
Mike Carey: That’s always the hardest question to answer. It comes from a lot of different places. We are deliberately and enjoyably mining the books that we love. We are choosing to refer to and embed fictions that mean a lot to us personally. As we go on with the book you will see that more and more. We will be making references to novels and stories that we’ve grown up with and that are part of our mental furniture. So I guess that’s a part of it--the fact that the architecture of these stories is made out of other stories and that these stories have powerful meanings to us. The willingness to play with ideas--we strike sparks off each other. One of us will say, ‘Let’s have a Moby Dick story,’ and the other will say, ‘OK, but why stop at one whale when you can have two?’And we’ll start thinking about ways of having duplicate references to different whale stories and so on. We kind of inspire each other. We have our eyes and mind and open as we are reading. We read a lot in our spare time and we’ll say just pick up the story here and it has an interesting sideline that we could use. Like, for example, issues 10 and 11 of The Unwritten are based on a very obscure German novel Jud Sϋβ which was written by a German Jew, Lion Feuchtwanger. And then it was turned into an anti-Semitic movie by the Nazis. The novel itself is an exploration of the German-Jewish experience done in a sensitive and very thoughtful, intellectual way. The Nazi’s turned it into a crude anti-Semitic movie. I thought there was something very interesting there: the idea of the story becoming its own opposite. We can do an Unwritten story built around that, and we did.
CBB: Very interesting.
Mike Carey: And then issue 12 is going to be our ‘Cuddly Animals’ story, loosely riffing on the Beatrix Potter books.
CBB: The Unwritten also unveils this sinister cabal of 19th century writers which Rudyard Kipling was unwittingly aiding in the bolstering of the British Empire. Why did you pick Kipling as the protagonist for the backdrop of the main story?
Mike Carey: I think, again it came out of a reading. I was reading a book called Kipling’s Imperial Life, which was not so much about the literature but about his role in the politics of the day. And I think that was what was fascinating, that here you have a man who has a public role that is inextricably bound up with certain events, events like the Jameson Raid, the Boer War, and to some extent the first World War. It is largely forgotten now because the attitudes he was espousing and that he was associated with become very-- what’s the word--they seem very antiquated now. They’re in some ways, too much of their time to be understood. But we just thought that he was a fascinating figure: we wanted to look at those anomalies and to look at the change. The changes in his position over time [were what] we thought was interesting. The glue that holds everything together is the personal tragedy and fact that he lost his daughter and his son in those terrible ways.
CBB: That issue was definitely really fantastic. I couldn’t believe what you did with that.
Mike Carey: It’s weird how you look at it afterwards. It’s almost like that’s the way it happened. The story already has that shape and it’s so easy to fit it into our scheme, our conspiracy story, our bigger, broader canvas. And we keep finding that. We keep finding nuggets of information that fit perfectly into the mosaic that we are trying to make.
CBB: In future issues, will we be seeing any more literary legends that will be fitting into this grandiose puzzle?
Mike Carey: Yes, very definitely. Some of them extremely old. Some of them date back much much further than the 19th century.
CBB: Well, you’ve already told us a little of what to expect, but thus far in The Unwritten, we’ve seen Tom Taylor, a man ostensibly written into existence by the man he thought was his father, become a new-age Christ figure, cross paths with a mysterious killer with an interesting right hand, be extradited to France for crimes he didn’t commit, meet Frankenstein’s monster, and inadvertently recreate his arch nemesis Count Ambrosio during a harrowing prison break. Without giving too much away, can you give us more of a taste of what to expect in the upcoming issues?
Mike Carey: Yeah, certainly. I’ve mentioned the Jud Sϋβ and the ‘Cuddly Animals’ stories. In year two, we’re kicking everything off into a much bigger idea. We’re going to start the second season of the book, if you like, with a major confrontation between Tom and an important character (I won’t name who the other important character is). But, either way, it’s kind of like a convergence of all of our characters. They all end up in London for different reasons at the same time, and there are some earth-shaking events there which leave Tom in a very different situation. And it actually leaves Lizzie and Savoy in a different situation as well. It’s a game changer for everybody. Coming out of there, Tom has a clearer sense of where he has to go, what he has to do. But, he’s lost some of the support that he was looking to have, and his job has just become exponentially harder. So, year two is when his personal quest begins really, when we get a sense of what he has to achieve and why and what’s at stake.
CBB: I’ve got two more questions if we have time.
Mike Carey: Sure!
CBB: Are there any titles that you’re reading right now that you just can’t get enough of?
Mike Carey: Good question (Laughing). I like a lot of the stuff that’s coming out of Vertigo. I’m enjoying Josh Dysart’s Unknown Soldier, Willow Wilson’s Air, Jason Aaron’s Scalped. Those are all very cool books. I read most of the X-Men books, because I have to keep up with what’s going on there, but I’m enjoying them all very much. X-Force is a very cool book. Gail Simone’s Secret Six never fails to delight me. It’s a wonderful superhero book. What else? There is a French series by Joann Sfar, The Rabbi’s Cat, which I’m reading semi-regularly and really enjoying. He also does a series called Klezmer which is a lot of fun, wild fun. There’s a lot that comes to mind. Oh, and Larry Marder’s Beanworld, which he just started writing again. That was one of my favorite books of the eighties. And [Elaine Lee’s] Starstruck, another one of my favorite books of the eighties. Those have just been revived recently, and I’m picking them up and reading them with great enjoyment.
CBB: Which creators would you like to work with in the future and why?
Mike Carey: Artists. I always love working with Mike Perkins. I’ve just written a one-off novel which he’s drawing which will come out in 2010. I’d like very much to work with Marc Hempel again. It’s been a great pleasure working with him on Vertigo projects in the past. It would be cool in the same way to work with Aaron Alexovich again. He did the art on the book Confessions of a Blabbermouth, and he’s a great guy and a wonderful artist. I would love to do something with Sam Keith. I would love to do something with either Jaime or Gilbert Hernandez. They’re both brilliant in different ways.
CBB: Well, in closing, I’d just like to say, it takes a true literary master to blur the bold line between the realms of fantasy and our modern reality, and you have adeptly succeeding in doing so time and time again through your writing.
Mike Carey: Thank you, Dan. Thank you very much.
CBB: I really appreciate you taking the time to speak with me today, and I hope to get this opportunity again in the near future.
Mike Carey: Cool. Cheers!
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