Comics Interview: UK Writer Mike Carey On His Career To Date
Mike Carey is one of the few comic book creators who provides a significant biography, all of which can be found here: http://mikecarey.net/?page_id=4
To mirror the way Carey provides information of his life, I will provide a brief overview and slightly more detail summary of his career.
Mike Carey is awesome.
Mike Carey was born in Liverpool in 1959 to two extremely hard working parents. Prior to working as a writer, he received an English Degree form Oxford and was a teacher for several years. He got into comics by submitting reviews to the British fanzine called Fantasy Advertiser, which was edited by Martin Skidmore and distributed by Neptune. In the 1980s, Neptune started a comics imprint called “Trident.” Carey, pursuing his desire to become a writer, submitted abstracts for two series and wrote the first three issues of each series. Neptune unfortunately went bankrupt.
Carey would eventually get work writing for Malibu and later Caliber. Using his work with Caliber as a business card, Carey would send DC Comics a copy every issue he wrote for them. During this time he also worked for popular anthology comic 2000 A.D. and created the series Th1rt3een and Carver Hale. Carey would eventually begin writing for Vertigo and write the entire run of the Eisner Award-nominated comic book Lucifer. He is currently working on Marvel’s X-Men: Legacy and the brilliant Vertigo series, The Unwritten.
Outside of the world of comic books, Carey is working on the television series The Stranded and has a soon-to-be-released novel titled, The Naming of the Beasts.
Nicholas Yanes: It’s known that you taught for several years prior to becoming employed as a writer. What are your thoughts on the fact that several universities have classes about comic books and some high schools are using graphic novels in their courses? With this in mind, if you started teaching again, would you use comic books? If so, which ones?
Mike Carey: I always did, to a certain extent. I taught Media Studies, and I used comic books for case studies on lots of occasions. I tended to go for the books that were having a big formative impact on the medium at that time – books like Watchmen, Dark Knight Returns and Sandman.
I think it’s entirely right and proper for there to be an academic discourse about comic books. What I’d question would be the approach that separates that discourse from the broader discourse about literary fictions. At University I studied on a degree course that called itself English Literature, but was actually “Prose, poetry and drama written in English by people formerly living in the British Isles, but now safely dead.” There was one course module in the whole three years that allowed you to do American literature, for example – and tellingly, the same module allowed as an alternative choice Medieval Norse. Comics are stories. Literature courses should look at stories in written form, whether or not they use pictures, whether or not they’re published as books.
Yanes: Your work on Lucifer defined a character that was created by Neil Gaiman. Similarly, when many X-Men fans think of Ice Man, Rogue, or Professor X, they think of the way you have recently presented the characters. I bring this up, because I’d like to know what your stance on creator’s rights is. In particular, do you think modern contracts and royalty agreements acknowledge the complexity of current story telling?
Carey: I belong to a generation that enjoys the fruits of other people’s struggles. The big battles over creators’ rights were fought in the 80s and 90s, and I inherited a situation where royalties on trades, foreign editions, reprints and so on were a given. That’s a very nice situation to be in: it means, for example, that I still get quarterly royalty cheques for sales of Lucifer trades.
But the wording of your question seems to suggest things like rights for online usage and electronic reproduction. Those continue to be vexed questions – like the question of where marketing ends and merchandising begins. Contracts certainly address these things now, because they have to – but whether they represent a fair deal for creators is another issue.
I have to confess to being somewhat schizophrenic on creators’ rights. To avoid any possibility of special pleading for comic book writers, I’ll take an example from a different creative field – music. Music producers are trying to crack down on and control digital piracy because it hugely threatens their bottom line: that’s a perfectly understandable reaction, whether you agree with it or not.
But as part of their response, they claim that digital piracy threatens the future of music, because it eats into funds available for R&D and makes the entire music market contract. Well, that’s just crap, basically. A particular model of musical production is threatened, but it’s a recent model, it’s not the only model and it only affects a sub-set of musicians and bands who distribute their music in that way. You can’t kill music, any more than you can kill stories. You can only change the rules of the game, bringing advantage to some people and disadvantage to others.
Yeah, I’m in favour of creators’ rights. Of course I am. Insofar as other people are profiting from my work, in contexts removed from its original production, then to put it crudely, I think it’s fair for me to get a piece of the action. But I don’t think it’s a natural law, or anything. Most storytellers throughout human history wouldn’t have gotten that, but they still told stories. In the current late-monopoly-capitalist arena, I think it’s preferable for creators’ rights to be clearly and explicitly defined and robustly defended: the alternative is that a whole bunch of other guys get rich while you starve in a garret, which isn’t nearly as romantic as it sounds. But there’s a sense in which your stories, your creations, will always spill out around any laws that are there and find new life a long way away from you. You can’t and shouldn’t try to stop that.
Yanes: Vertigo recently announced that all their first issues will be one dollar. Considering that Marvel and mainstream-DC Comics are raising the price for each of their issues, especially their first issues, what do you think inspired Vertigo to take this risk? And how well do you think this gamble will work out?
Carey: It’s a way of encouraging a lot of people to try the book out, and I think it can only be a good thing. I’m sort of reminded of the words of the Tom Lehrer song, “The Old Dope Peddler”:
He gives the kids free samples
Because he knows full well
That today’s young innocent faces
Will be tomorrow’s clientele.
If you’ve got a product that you’re confident people will like, but that they might miss unless you draw attention to it, the loss-leader thing makes really good sense.
Yanes: You have written a movie script called Frost Flowers and you are working on the TV series The Stranded. With your film and television experience in mind, what do you think about film and television comic book adaptations? On this note, what are you thoughts on comic book characters and specific storylines being translated into novels? Are there key narrative elements that you think are gained or lost in translation?
Carey: Adaptation fascinates me. I’ve now done two novel-to-comic-book adaptations and one movie-to-comic-book adaptation, and I’ve written four movie screenplays. On the basis of that small sample I’m going to go out on a limb and say this: a novel is an imperial gallon of story, and a movie is a pint pot. Selection is MURDER when you’re going in that direction. Turning a short story into a movie is easy enough, but with a novel you have to sweat blood over what to cut out and how to present what you leave in.
By contrast, turning a novel into a comic book mini-series is a really rewarding and fascinating process. It’s still a challenge, but it’s a different kind of challenge – and I believe it can be done without any compromise, so long as you let the structure of the novel lead the decision about the length of the series. With Neverwhere we had a ballpark figure of between eight and twelve issues. I chose ten, initially, and then went down to nine because when I placed the key beats that was where it all came out.
Obviously, there’s a sense in which the medium is the message: every mode of storytelling has its own rules and its own rhythms. You’re never doing a straight mapping: you’re doing something a lot more interesting than that, which is a re-invention and a re-telling, as faithful to the spirit of the original as you can make it. Again, to take an example from Neverwhere, we made at least two profound changes, one to narrative point of view and the other to narrative structure. We used a first person narrator (Richard), because omniscient third person narration can read as obtrusive and awkward in comic books. And we changed the nature of the first meeting between Door and Islington so that it only happened on a sort of spiritual plane – removing a loop in the narrative that would have bumped up awkwardly against our nine-part structure. There were a lot of other things, too, but these were big things. Some readers balked at them, but I think they both made the story – as a comic book story – work more effectively. Straight translation usually produces an impoverished experience.
I could illustrate the same point from Ender’s Shadow. I play the sub-plot of Carlotta’s quest out at a very different pace from the novel, because I needed to keep it in narrative view, and in the reader’s mind, on an issue-to-issue basis. That doesn’t traduce the novel, or dilute the experience when you read the comic: it’s just being sensitive to the rhythms of your medium and making the story live within that new context.
Yanes: Your most recent work has been The Unwritten. I have yet to read a negative review about this title. How did you feel to get such positive feedback?
Carey: It’s been great! The scale and the strength of the response were wholly unexpected, even given the one-dollar price point. There were one or two negative reviews, though. Someone on iFanboy said “Hey, this is a total rip-off of Harry Potter”. Umm, yes. Of course it is. Because Harry Potter is all about a real boy who suddenly becomes the messiah of a lunatic cult and has to cope with the possibility that he may be a fictional character…
Yanes: The Unwritten does seem to be in part inspired by the Harry Potter book series. What other influences are you drawing from for this title? Beyond the works that influenced you, what was the main inspiration in creating this story?
Carey: Probably the most important reference point is the autobiography of Christopher Milne – who is famous as the Christopher Robin of the Winnie the Pooh books. Milne grew up feeling that his father had stolen his childhood from him, turned a profit from it and then given it back to him in a form he couldn’t use. Our Tom is very much in that situation when we first meet him, although we take his identity crisis a fair bit further than that.
But The Unwritten is a story about stories, and it has a whole sackful of great stories embedded in it. Frankenstein is a story we go back to again and again, always from a different angle. Moby Dick, the Just So Stories, The Song of Roland, Gilgamesh…we’re very eclectic with our borrowings.
Yanes: The aspect of The Unwritten that I liked the most and that I think makes it so re-readable is your use of text based images. Where did you get the idea to do the “acrostic poem”? And with this in mind, how much fun did you have doing issue 1’s cable news information scroll?
Carey: The acrostic poem is a nod to Lewis Carroll’s writings. He wrote a very clever double acrostic for Gertrude Chataway, which was (I think) the dedication to The Hunting of the Snark. In that poem, as well as the initial letters spelling out the name, the four stanzas began with the four words girt, rude, chat and away – I admired the verbal dexterity, and it seemed like a cool riff here to have a coded message that would become part of the “legend” of the Tommy Taylor books.
The various media pages and riffs were fun to do, but man, are they hard work! The scripts for those pages run to three or four times the length of a regular page. They’re very important, though, in giving the sense of information – stories – moving out into the world through multiple channels at near-instantaneous speed. That’s the essential backdrop to Tom’s own story.
Yanes: Several commentators have compared your use of the acrostic poem and cable news scroll to Watchmen. And many have also compared your homage to Harry Potter to The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. What’s it like to be compared to Alan Moore?
Carey: I hadn’t read those particular commentaries, so all I can say is…
Actually, I can’t say anything. I open my mouth to speak, nothing comes out.
Yanes: I can’t imagine a better artist for this story than Peter Gross. How do you go about picking who you want your artist to be?
Carey: In this case, we picked each other – and the whole genesis of the book, the planning and the pitching and the plotting, has been something we’ve laboured on together. Peter and I really wanted to work together again after Lucifer, and it’s taken us this long to make it happen.
You’re absolutely right: Peter is the perfect, and in fact the only, artist for this book. It needs his versatility with layouts, his control of pacing and narrative flow, and his range. I write knowing that he’s the other side of the coin: that I can ask for these crazy things and he’ll provide. And the converse is also true: he suggests elements for the story and I weave them in. It’s a very organic process.
Ordinarily, editors have the final say on the art team. The writer can make suggestions and requests, but they’ll only happen if the editor is comfortable with them. In this case, both Peter and I have worked with Pornsak Pichetshote, our editor, on previous projects and we have a great working relationship with him. We’re sort of a three-headed monster on this book.
Yanes: Moving away from Vertigo, your work on X-Men: Legacy has been fantastic. However, because its so continuity heavy, are there any plans to produce a collection of X-Men: Legacy that contains a annotated bibliography so that fans go back and read the issues that you specifically reference?
Carey: It’s funny you should ask. We did that with the second collection, Sins of the Father. I’d like to do it for all subsequent trades, but that’s a call for Marvel to make.
Yanes: What projects are you currently working on that your fans can look forward to in the future?
Carey: Well the Human Torch miniseries, which I’m co-plotting with Alex Ross, has just been announced. The Gambit Origin book is coming shortly. I’m working on the beat sheet for the sixth Castor novel even as we speak, and also doing some game scripting – a new experience for me, and so far a really rewarding one. And I’m in the early stages of planning a novel which I’ll co-write with my wife, Linda, and our daughter, Louise. I think those are the big irons in the fire at the moment, besides Unwritten and Legacy.
Yanes: Finally, if you wanted your fans to add false information to one Wikipedia entry, what entry and what information would you want added?
Carey: Wow. I almost hesitate to say, in case anybody goes ahead and does it. I would have suggested amending David Irving’s entry so that it began “David Irving is a writer” rather than “David Irving is a historian” (because he ain’t), but someone has already done that. Maybe someone could amend my bio so that it accurately reflects my achievements in the fields of heart surgery, the British space program, Formula One racing and chainsaw-juggling.
For more information about Mike Carey feel free to check out his website: http://mikecarey.net
Additionally, one of his publishers, Orbit, maintains a separate website dedicated to Carey that can be found here: http://www.mike-carey.co.uk