iFanboy Talks to… Mike Carey


We spoke with Mike Carey last year, and he was so good, we decided to give you another look at it. Carey is the masterful creator behind Lucifer and Hellblazer, as well as many other excellent comic writings. Mike enlightened us on his writing process, and which comics he thinks are really good. Pay attention.

MikeC1.JPGiFanboy: Is there anything out there to compare with Lucifer genre wise in comics?

Mike Carey: Well I think it’s clear that the immediate model for Lucifer, at least in the first place, was The Sandman. I was very much inspired by Neil’s creation of a sort of super-mythology into which all existing mythologies could be subsumed, and I’ve structured Lucifer so that it gives me many of the same freedoms that The Sandman had.

More broadly speaking, the genre is a kind of post-modernist horror fantasy – post-modernist only in that it assumes a certain distance from the mythological/religious texts that it draws its central characters and situations from. So it’s able to play with ideas of faith and eschatology at one remove without taking an “engaged” position – without assuming the perspective of any one religion. Even figures like God and Lucifer are ambiguous, because they mean somewhat different things, are slightly different signifiers, within the Christian and the Jewish religions.

Eddie Campbell’s Deadface had some similarities – it was very different in tone, but what it was doing with the Greek mythological characters isn’t that far removed from what I’ve done with Japanese and Norse and Native American ones in Lucifer. Only Eddie Campbell can do those shifts from epic to comic to tragic a bit more deftly than I can.

In a totally different way, I can find parallels to what I’m trying to do in Carla Speed McNeil’s Finder. That’s another comic where all mythologies are at home: blended in a more organic way than in Lucifer, maybe, because the pleasure of Finder is all in the nuances and the layering in of meaning. Everything’s hinted at fairly subtly, whereas in Lucifer the big themes are sort of nailed on the wall up there all the time.

iF: Do you feel that Lucifer is on a different literary level than other comics? What do you think about having it on a rack next to Captain Whoever Adventures?

MC: Oh lord, I don’t make any special claims for Lucifer as literature. It exists – I hope it exists – in a tradition of comics that are quite thoughtful, and that are able to play with ideas in interesting ways. But the truth is that comics, just like prose texts, extend all the way from the important to the trivial, the serious to the frivolous. Vertigo has created a home for comics that go beyond the obvious, but it’s not the only home. There are so many comics out there that are rich and meaty and subtle and resonant and beautifully written. I mentioned Finder already – and there’s Rachel Hartman’s Amy Unbounded, and Bone, and Joe Sacco’s work, and Sam Kieth’s Zero Girl, and much, much more. I’d be very happy to be mentioned in the same sentence as any of those guys. Well, unless the sentence was “Sam Kieth is great but Mike Carey sucks”.

And although people talk a lot about the demise of the superhero, I tend to think of superhero comics as just another genre – one that comics do better than any other medium. It’s possible to do profound and moving and richly pleasurably superhero books. Okay, they’re not all that common, because a lot of superhero books are aimed at a younger audience whose requirements from a text are a bit different. But it’s possible.

iF: Do you consciously try to connect sex and pain in Lucifer’s realm? They seem to go together.

MC: No, the connection is between love and pain – as in real life. I think you can draw a line in Lucifer between the characters who are capable of love and those who aren’t. And the ones who are make themselves vulnerable, of course. That’s where the pain comes in.

There’s definitely a theme of childbirth that runs through the book as well. There’s Erishad’s endlessly repeated abortion, the archangel Michael being used as an incubator, Jill Presto being impregnated by the Basanos, and so on. I seem to be more interested in the after-effects of sex than in the act itself. I mean, from a narrative point of view. I’m not talking about my private life. That’s sort of different.

iF: Do you do a lot of research on Lucifer?

MC: Yeah, but not enough. I have a pretty good layman’s knowledge of most mythologies from my university days, and I still read around a lot – but when it comes to fine details I often fall back on the internet. For example the Voudun chants used by Mambo Pawol in Lucifer#9 mostly came from websites: they were actually lines from hymns and poems rather than magical spells, because I wanted to get the feel right without using words from actual Voudun ceremonials.

I sometimes get a bit uneasy about some of the things I’ve done in the book – for example showing Blue Flint Girl way back in the original mini-series. She’s one of the Navajo holy people, and the only depictions of her that you get are highly stylised ones in sand paintings. In retrospect I think it was perhaps a bad idea to show her as a flesh and blood old woman. Or perhaps I should have shown her as I did but kept her actual identity a little vague.

Sorry, coming back to the point. There’s always more research you can do: you have to stop somewhere, and I think I stop in the right sort of area but maybe on the windy side of all right.

iF: Are you still having a lot of fun writing Constantine?

MC: Yeah, very much so. There’s so much in my past that parallels his, so much I can draw on. Like John, I’m a scouser living in London, and like John I combine knowledge of black magic with a consummate con-man’s style and… Well, actually it’s just the Liverpool/London thing. Plus the fact that I’ve loved the character from way back before he had his own book, when he made his first appearance in Swamp Thing. It’s just so great getting the chance to add a few chapters to his progress.

Constantine is probably the most iconic character that Vertigo has – kind of, Vertigo’s Batman. That makes it a challenge to write him, too, because you’re always aware of all the other versions of him that have come before. Every time he speaks there are half a dozen weird echoes. But it’s a challenge that I’m getting a huge kick out of taking on.

iF: You don’t seem terribly evil, in fact, you seem quite not evil, at least in countenance. Where does the evil come from in the books?

MC: Who says I’m not evil? Give me their names.

iF: What, to you, is the seminal work in modern “mature themed” comics?

MC: I’d have to give the obvious answer there: Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing. That book combined lyrical beauty and visceral horror in a way that just redefined for me what comics could actually do.

Case in point: I’d grown up reading horror comics alongside superhero and sci-fi ones – but I can’t remember ever being actually scared by any of the stories. Sometimes they had neat, clever endings, and sometimes they played horror themes basically for laughs. None of them made you plunge your knuckles into your own mouth and bite down. Swamp Thing did. It had moments that gently, inexorably, took you into a conceptual space that scared the bloody pants off you.

Moore had also taken on board Ursula LeGuin’s old observation about “excursions that are really incursions”. He was always writing about real issues, real relationships, real people. It was social realist horror. And, to state the obvious, great storytelling.

iF: Why does it seem that writers are drawn to Norse mythology so much? In comics and otherwise, I feel like I keep running across the Asgardian gods. In Lucifer, and of course there was Sandman and the Marvel version, but also in Gaiman’s American Gods and Michael Avon Oeming’s Hammer of the Gods in comics. What’s the big draw?

MC: Umm… I dunno. Babes with big breastplates and guys with big hammers? I stayed away from Norse mythology for three years, and I went round the houses first, so you can’t accuse me of sharing this strange obsession. Norse myth does have some very funky characters and a strong central storyline that takes you all the way to the end of the world with play-by-play commentary. But Greek mythology is almost as pervasive. Don’t forget that Marvel did Hercules as well as Thor, and Wonder Woman drew heavily on the myth of the Amazons; then there was Deadface; Sandman used the Furies; and now we’ve got Frank Miller’s 300 and Age of Bronze. Comic writers will steal your car keys, your mobile phone and your spleen if you look away for ten seconds. We take anything that’s not nailed down.

iF: Do you find your atheism affects your writing, since religion of whatever stripe seems to wind its way through the worlds of your characters?

MC: Yes. It has to. I write about religion as an outsider, which makes Lucifer an ideal protagonist for me. He encounters a great many people who are passionate believers in something: the essence of the contrast between Lucifer and Michael is that Michael has never questioned God’s will and has complete faith in God’s big, overarching plan. Lucifer’s faith begins and ends with himself – which, I hasten to add, is not my position, but it’s one that I find very intriguing to explore.

iF: How long can we expect to keep reading your work in Lucifer? Is there a planned arc or ending?

There is now a planned ending. When I started writing the book, I had the first year planned in a lot of detail, and events up to the end of “Inferno” (#32) planned in broad outline. After that I had a few strands that I wanted to develop but nothing really sketched out in any way that made sense. Then gradually as we worked our way through the first couple of years’ stories, it became clearer to all of us that we were heading towards a specific destination – and I reckon we’ll probably get there some time in the next two to three years. That still doesn’t mean we know exactly how we’re going to get there, of course, but you’ll see the storylines narrowing towards a certain point.

Issue 40 will be a major turning point in this: something happens at the end of the Naglfar arc that is bigger in story terms than anything we’ve done since #13 (when Lucifer created his cosmos). And then there’ll be another very important development in the three-issue arc that leads up to #50, which will probably make it clear roughly where we’re heading.

iF: How well planned out are your plot lines? Far in advance? Do you always know where you’re going?

MC: [Editor] Shelly [Bond] makes me do six-month plans twice a year. But we talk about the book and about possible story ideas all the time, so actually we’re usually further ahead in terms of actual planning than the official paperwork would show. But I’ve also found that each story gives birth to other stories, so some of the things I originally intended to do got dropped, and other things popped up. Issue 24 (the centaur story) and issue 28 (the Gaudium one-off) weren’t initially planned – they just happened because we wanted to stop and play with those characters.

iF: It seems like you’re putting both Lucifer and Constantine into tough situations, but in the end you’ve always got a solution for the hero that’s plausible and not pandering to the reader. Is it tough for you to come up with believable and compelling predicaments for them? Lucifer in particular is a character who isn’t ever worried that anyone can do anything to him, because, so far, they can’t. Is that a tough challenge for you?

MC: It’s tougher for Lucifer than for John: John has a natural tendency to wade out of his depth, whereas Lucifer could stand in the middle of the Atlantic and only be up to his ankles.

I do make a point of trying to come up with denouements that make solid narrative sense but are still unexpected. So for example in the “Inferno” storyline in Lucifer, I think a lot of people would have been waiting for Lucifer to recover his strength and win the duel because he’s his old self again. So we have Mazikeen pursuing Susano, and burning the tainted feathers – but it’s too late. Lucifer’s heart has already been torn out, and he has to win by a trick that we’ve set up rather than by brute force. Then there’s a sort of delayed one-two beat where he gets his strength back just in time to prevent Remiel from executing him. I was happy with the way that turned out, and I don’t think many people saw it coming.

Other times, though, there’s a lot to be said for telegraphing an ending – or part of an ending – but then coming to it by a different route than the obvious one. When Lucifer comes back from the brink of death (and Death) in Purgatorio, nobody could have been very surprised. But that issue ends on the revelation that Elaine has died to make it happen, so the story in one sense delivers exactly what you were expecting, but in another sense does a little swerve and makes you see that ending differently.

iF: What’s your writing process like? Do you make sure you write a certain amount every day at a certain time? What’s the office look like where you think of all this nasty stuff?

MC: I don’t have an office. I work at a desk wedged into a corner of the living room. It’s cluttered with a lot of Todd McFarlane toys that I never get around to dusting, with a fax machine and a squat little black filing cabinet off to one side. Behind me there’s a table which we eat off when the whole family eats together, and the rest of the time it’s piled with papers that I haven’t filed, faxed copies of page roughs and cover sketches, old scripts, pay vouchers, bank statements, phone messages… you get the picture.

And I’m afraid my writing process is as chaotic as that table. I do try to get the bulk of the work done during the day when I’m (usually) alone at home. But most evenings I do a bit more work when the kids are in bed, and Sunday is also a work day. I’m not good at drawing a line and stopping when I reach it. I’m too insecure for that.

One thing I always do with a script is to draw it before I write it. I make these stupid, crude little page roughs with unfinished sketches of each panel and dialogue all down the side. That takes two, maybe three days to do, but it makes writing the actual script very quick and easy. I’d recommend it to anyone.

iF: Do you read a lot? I read that Stephen King thinks a good writer should read around 60-70 books a year? I would imagine it takes a lot if input to feed the worlds of your titles.

MC: I read whenever I can – always in bed at night, most lunchtimes while I’m eating, whenever I’m on a bus or train. If I find a good book I get totally immersed in it and read late into the night. I’m currently reading China Mieville’s The Scar, which is an absolutely wonderful book – a masterpiece, to use a hackneyed term.

I don’t know about the 60-70 books, though. My problem is that I’ll find a writer I like and burn through all of the books I can get by that writer: then there’ll be a lull while I’m looking for someone else to get into. There was a Peanuts cartoon where Charlie Brown was fantasising about having two ponies, so he could come up to the little red-haired girl, riding on one pony, hand her the bridle of the other, and invite her to go for a ride with him. The punchline is where he turns to Snoopy with a grim sort of glare and says “Why aren’t you two ponies?” After reading The Scar, I know I’ll look at the next book I read, whatever it is, and think “why aren’t you by China Mieville?”

iF: What do you like in comics right now?

MC: Without a doubt, my favourite comic at the moment is Rachel Hartman’s Amy Unbounded, which Karon Flage recommended to me at last year’s Comic-Con. It’s a deceptively simple story about a ten-year-old girl growing up in a sort of medieval world that has dragons in it but is otherwise very similar to our own world about six or seven hundred years ago. It’s light and funny and easy to gobble up in small installments, and then you find that you’re still thinking about it days later.

I’m also loving Bone, which I only get in the trade paperbacks. Finder. 21 Down (which had the best first issue I’ve seen in a long while). Joe Kelly’s JLA, Morrison’s X Men, Geoff Johns’ Flash. Anything at all by Sam Kieth. Top Ten, which sadly is no longer an ongoing title but is still going to show up as the occasional special.

It’s funny. I used to pine for the eighties, because there was a time back then when everything seemed to be happening at once. But actually there’s more diversity and more sheer greatness in comics now than at any time I can remember: the market may be smaller than it was, and it may work in different ways, but it’s a great time to be reading funny books.