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Thoughts From The Land Of Frost:
Writer Mike Carey Talks Lucifer, Hellblazer By Alexander Ness
Mike Carey has risen rather quickly to become one of the most fan-favorite writers in the industry. With his deep and profound work on such current books as Lucifer and Hellblazer, he has earned a legion of followers as well as an exclusive contract with DC Comics.
Slush talks to Carey about his career, both past and present, and what's coming up next for the British native.
Alex Ness: Please tell my audience some biographical information about yourself, such as where you are from, are you married, education, children, cats, etc.?
Mike Carey: Well, I'm from Liverpool, originally. That's a big seaport on the North West coast of England. Or rather, it was a big seaport, and a big manufacturing center too. But then in the 1960s and 1970s the industry and the sea commerce all started to dry up at the same time, and the city went into a decline. Some people say it's coming out of that period now, but certainly when I lived there, there was always a sense of things falling apart. Which isn't to say that I wasn't happy - just that life wasn't always easy.
My Dad was in the merchant navy when World War II broke out, which meant that he was immediately drafted. He did North Atlantic convoys for a while, and then got transferred to deck duty on an aircraft carrier. He went to North and South America, all the ports of Europe, North Africa, and God knows where else - then he came home and got a job a few miles away from where he was born. When he settled down, he settled down for good: he never left England again as long as he lived.
When I was a kid, both of my parents were working in a bread factory a few streets away - my Dad on the ovens, my Mum as a cleaner. They'd both left school as soon as they could, because they grew up in a culture where kids were expected to do what they could to help out the family finances. They both had very hard lives, but amazingly it hadn't scarred them in anyway: they were both very generous and loving people (although my Mum had an awesome temper when she felt she'd been insulted, and would trade blows with anybody, man or woman).
We were the generation that profited from the reforms of the first Labour governments in the UK: we got to stay on at school to eighteen and then go on to university, which was still a relatively new thing for working class kids. My big brother Chris went to Cambridge, and I went to Oxford along with my little brother David. All the boys in the family found academic success pretty easy: we were quite bright, and very conformist. By contrast, our two sisters, equally intelligent, were born rebels and spent most of their school careers truanting or picking fights with teachers. They neither of them went to university: they just didn't have the patience.
At Oxford I met a girl named Linda Sandhouse, and we just hit it off right from the start. We knew about two weeks after we met that we were probably a permanent item, and we got married as soon as we'd finished our degrees. We've now got three kids - a girl, Louise, and twin boys, Davey and Ben - and a cat. Life is very full. Lin teaches at senior high level, but also writes novels on the side. I taught for about fifteen years, but now I just write.
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AN: What was the first comic that you read?
MC: Wham! Nothing to do with the pop group - it was a comic that Leo Baxendale wrote and drew for Fleetway in the 1960s. It had such great characters as Eagle Eye, Junior Spy, Glug the Caveman ("he's first in everything"), Footsie the Clown and The Tiddlers (which was a straightforward rip-off of The Bash Street Kids, but still pretty cool). I learned to read from Wham!, and it gave me a passion for comics that I never lost. And I still think Baxendale's work is fantastic.
AN: Why or how did you choose to be a writer? Was it a burning desire or more simply a gift you chose to use?
MC: I'm not sure I ever did choose. I enjoy writing a lot, and I've always done it - poetry and novels as well as various kinds of scriptwriting -but all through my teens and twenties I was just doing it as a hobby. I mean, obviously I fantasized about making a living out of it, but I knew that most people who write also have a day job. Then very gradually it started to take off. I was really surprised when writing commissions reached a sort of critical mass where I could quit teaching and just write full-time.
A long time ago - before there was even such a thing as Vertigo – I met Karen Berger at the SSI pre-con before the London comics convention, and we got talking. I said to her that I was still waiting for the big break. "There is no big break," she said. "There's just a whole lot of little ones." That's how it was for me. I got a whole lot of little breaks, and they added up to one fantastic opportunity. I do love what I do - and I do feel ridiculously lucky to be doing it.
AN: What writers inspired or influenced you?
MC: In terms of comics, my influences are all the obvious ones - the generation of British writers that came before me and largely blazed the trail that my generation are following. Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison and Alan Moore are my holy trinity, and I'd be very hard put to choose between them in terms of how much influence they've had on me and how much pleasure they've given me.
Then there are indie writers and writer/artists like the Hernandez Brothers, Larry Marder, Linda Barry and Jim Woodring. And I read a fair bit of French stuff: Fred's Philemon series blew me away, and I love Franquin's Gaston Lagaffe (although I wouldn't call that an influence exactly). I used to like Druillet, but then I sort of grew up.
Outside of comics what I mostly read is sci-fi and fantasy. I guess Michael Moorcock and Ursula LeGuin both had a big influence on how I wrote when I was younger - Moorcock mainly in terms of plot. All those quests for hugely powerful McGuffins like the black sword and the runestaff and the crotchless panties of destiny, I used to lap all that stuff up. Obviously there was a lot more to Moorcock than that: the Dancers at the End of Time books were a revelation to me, because the characters were so preposterous and so over the top and yet he still made you believe in them and care about what happened to them. I realized when I read An Alien Heat that verisimilitude is a movable feast. It's emotional truth, rather than factual accuracy or authenticity, that readers respond most strongly to.
LeGuin was the first writer I loved who was a great stylist – unless that was Lord Dunsany - and the first who talked openly about the metaphorical power of fantasy fiction. She said in the intro to one of her books that most of the "apparent excursions outward" in sci-fi are really incursions inward, and that every alien world is Earth seen through an ironic lens. I took that to heart. I've never believed that sci-fi and fantasy were fundamentally escapist, and I certainly try to talk about things that matter to me in my own fantasies.
Oh, Roger Zelazny was another sci-fi writer who I loved, and who probably left an imprint on the stuff I write myself. The Amber books, Jack of Shadows and Lord of Light are masterpieces of the genre - and there are more archetypes in them than there are in Tolkien, for my money.
AN: What would you say are the most important life influences that you could name?
MC: The birth of my kids, and the death of my parents. They're both things that change the way you relate to the world. Having kids makes different parts of your personality come to the fore - aspects of yourself that you didn't know were there. It puts you back in touch with your own childhood. Whereas, when your parents die that forces you, on some level, to think of yourself as a grown-up whether you want to be one or not. It robs you of a psychological refuge. When my Mum died, my brother Dave said "There goes the one person who you always knew was in your corner." For years afterwards, if something good happened to me I'd reach for the phone to tell her and then realize she was dead, so I couldn't.
In a broader sense, having had a working class upbringing in a time of relative hardship and poverty is an influence that you don't shake off. I think it's an excellent start in life, in many ways. It stops you from taking anything for granted.
AN: What comics do you try to stay current in your reading?
MC: 21 Down. Finder. Amy Unbounded, when I can get it. Most of the Vertigo line. Flash and JLA. The Authority.
AN: With apologies to your earlier work, I am most interested in your work on Lucifer and Hellblazer. How do you develop a series around a character such as Lucifer when even the least religious sort likely has some negative connotation with the name, if not a belief that the religious figure exists? Seems kind of like the New Adventures of Hitler or Joe Stalin, Superdude to a first time observer.
MC: Well, let's not forget that I was walking into a character and a situation that had already been set up and defined by Neil Gaiman. My Lucifer has evolved along his own path, but he's still Neil's Lucifer in essence. And I guess it is fairly amazing that we haven't generated more controversy by taking the devil as our protagonist - maybe it just shows that comics fly comfortably along below the cultural radar of most people.
There's a long and honorable literary tradition of the anti-hero or villain-hero. Shakespeare's Richard III, for example: an absolute bastard, but perversely attractive at times because he's so up front about it. Or Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, who despite his ruthlessness and avarice is a lot more sympathetic than the mealy-mouthed minor nobles who ultimately bankrupt and humiliate him. He's got passion, and he's got an unanswerable case in that he has been exploited and marginalized and reviled by Venetian society, so part of you is definitely cheering him on when it comes to payback time.
Lucifer should elicit a similar response, I reckon: a mixture of horror and unwilling sympathy. You can't approve of the things he does, but you can see where he's coming from and there's a sense in which you can empathize with the position in which he finds himself. He wants to be free: who doesn't? But divine providence hems him in on all sides - there's no escape from God's big plan. So yeah, he's a monster, but he's not like Hitler or Stalin. He's a monster in whom you can see your own face reflected.
AN: Is there anything that you think Christians in particular would find about Lucifer that would be offensive outside the name and concept? That is, is it anti-biblical in its perspective?
MC: I don't think so. But it is exploring the implications of some aspects of Judeo-Christian cosmology - holding them up to scrutiny. Some of the more doctrinaire adherents of any religion will object to that kind of exploration for its own sake. I mean, really we're just taking the idea of an all-knowing God - a God who can see past, present and future laid out like a two-dimensional maze - and saying "well how does it feel to be one of the rats in that maze?" Personally I'd reject the premise: I don't believe in a personalized God, so this is a problem that doesn't exist for me. But for Christians and Jews, and I guess Muslims, it's something that you at least have to consider. If God is all-powerful and all-knowing then can there be any such thing as free will?
On a more mundane level, it's just occurred to me that bringing in Biblical characters and putting them in a modern setting could be taken as offensive. We had King Solomon as a private detective in a recent storyline.
AN: Are you a Christian in practice or in name? Does that play any role in your approach to the series?
MC: No, I'm an atheist - and I think that informs everything I write. I look at issues of faith and belief from the outside. Not cynically, or at least I hope not, but very objectively. I'm inclined to be very mistrustful of organized religions. I can get behind people like the Quakers and the Ba'hai, who put a lot of emphasis on the individual's conscience and the individual's relationship with God. The bigger and more monolithic a church organization gets, the more suspicious I am of it.
For example we just had a major crisis in the Anglican church, which was my Mum's church. They appointed a gay bishop, and a whole bunch of other Anglican bishops around the world howled in outrage and said - I paraphrase only slightly - "you can't dispense God's word if you're a pooftah!" So the Archbishop of Canterbury, the spiritual head of the entire Anglican church, bowed his head sadly and twisted the guy's arm until he resigned.
I think all organizations, whatever their ostensible reason for existing, come to be dominated and controlled by the kind of people who succeed in organizations - narrow minded, conservative with a small c, neurotic and self-serving. Churches don't have any built-in immunity to this process. So I think even if I came to believe in God, I'd never be happy belonging to a church.
AN: I would have agreed regarding church despite me being a Christian but I have found someplace that is in many ways different than your perceptions. But I do know this, I never judge any organization by its worst or stupidest members. Human nature and diversity means that stupid and unethical folks inhabit each organization regardless of the organizations raisond'etre.
How is it working with Peter Gross?
MC: Peter is a writer's dream - an artist who always sees what you're getting at, and usually has a better idea of how to get there than you do. I love working with him. I love how he takes everything I've put into a script and turns it into gold. Nobody does it better, as far as I'm concerned.
A good case in point would be all the insane landscapes that cropped up in the Naglfar storyline. Peter made that alien geography believable- gave you a real sense of vast spaces being crossed - and at the same time juggled a very large cast (including two identical Cals) without any apparent effort. That was the first thing that struck me about Peter's art way back when he was doing Books of Magic: he made the incredible totally convincing and believable. It's even more impressive than the emotional range he can hit - the way he can modulate from tragedy to comedy and back again in a single sequence.
He also does inspired, marvelous, awesome monsters: the Jin en Mok, Musubi, Gaudium, Seviram, Scoria, Gyges and Garamas (you've still got them to look forward to) - they're all masterpieces, and they're all absolutely distinctive. I've always been lucky with the artists I've worked with, but with Peter I just hit the jackpot.
AN: I know him slightly as he was a fixture in Duluth and I enjoyed his first work on Empire Lanes. So where do you see the series Lucifer going in the future?
MC: We're heading for a big, epic climax which should be coming along in about two and a half to three years' time. The events of #40 mark a big turning point in the series as a whole, and maybe provides the first clues as to where we might eventually be going - but I don't think anyone will be able to second-guess us. The relationship between Lucifer and Michael is going to be coming more the fore, and other key relationships are going to undergo some very fundamental changes.
Ultimately, I guess we came in around the middle of a fight that's been going on since before the dawn of time. We're not intending to leave any major issues hanging.
AN: Your run on Hellblazer is considered by some to be something of a renaissance for John Constantine. While I think every writer has left an awesome mark (really) what aspect of the character are you most proud of your take on?
MC: I guess there are two sides to John's character - the laughing magician and the con-man with balls of brass. You need both, and I think I've been reasonably successful at getting both in.
John knows a lot, both about magic and about human nature, and knowledge is power. But he's got this detached, ironic attitude to everything, including himself. He never takes anything at face value, and he never witnesses pomposity or hypocrisy or self-righteousness without taking the piss out of it in passing. And like Paul Newman in Cool-Hand Luke, he can win a game with no cards at all because "sometimes nothing can be a real coolhand."
AN: Any particular arc so far that you feel is your best work?
MC: “Red Sepulchre.” I had a whale of a time playing with the Yojimbo/Fistful of Dollars scenario, and I liked having John worm his way out from an impossible situation by second-guessing his opponents. Okay, there was a little bit of magic involved as well - but basically he just out-maneuvered everyone else in his usual cocky, cold-hearted way. I was also pleased with the plot twist concerning what the red sepulchre actually was: I know some people saw through it, but what mattered to me was that I put all my cards on the table. It was misdirection, but it was fair misdirection.
I was also really happy with the way Marcelo portrayed the various characters - especially Map, Clarice and Fredericks - and the way he caught the atmosphere. The whole story had a really dark, moody feel to it.
AN: What writer prior to you on the series was your particular favorite?
MC: I always find this one hard to answer. I guess it has to be Jamie [Delano], because he was the one who turned John from a superb, enigmatic supporting character into someone who could carry his own series. He gave John a past, a context, and a believable personality. He also used his stories as vehicles for some radical political commentary that was very welcome in the Thatcherite wasteland I was inhabiting at the time.
I'm no longer sure about the idea of using John as first-person narrator. I've done it occasionally - in “Bred in the Bone,” for example – but I tend to use other characters or have an omniscient narrative voice. It's nice to keep a bit of mystery about John's motives and feelings: if you let people get in too close, you run the risk of neutering him a bit.
AN: If Constantine and Lucifer were in a drag down take out no-holds-barred fight, who wins?
MC: Lucifer wins, then as he's walking away he realizes his wallet's gone.
AN: Do you utilize eBay to sell scripts or otherwise promote your work?
MC: No, never. I buy on eBay, but I've never sold there. I'd feel a bit odd selling a script, to be honest. I gave one to Azazel to use on the Lucifermorningstar website, and I've sent copies to young artists who wanted some pages to use in a Vertigo submission.
AN: Do you have a personal website?
MC: Nope. God, I'm coming across as a Luddite here, aren't I?
AN: Well this is appearing online, so no.
MC: I've avoided producing a website because of the time involved. I know they're very useful for promoting your stuff and drumming up work, as well as allowing you another medium of communication with readers - but there'd be a learning curve, because I know nothing about HTML, or Flash, or Dreamweaver, or any of the other tools I'd have to use, and life's too full of other stuff to sit down and crack open the manuals. I do spend a fair amount of time on online message boards - the DC one, John McMahon's excellent Straight to Hell site, and a few other places. I like to talk to readers and get a sense of how my stories are going down. I just do it the lazy way, sneaking into other people's sites rather than setting up my own.
AN: What future projects can you share with my readers?
MC: Well, I've got a miniseries coming out from Vertigo very soon – there may even be an announcement at San Diego. It's called My Faith in Frankie, and it's a sort of supernatural romance with a love triangle involving a high school girl, a god and a dead guy. There's more to it than that, and I guess it's very Vertigo in tone: it's about the power of faith, and whether that's enough to sustain a relationship. And it's funny. Or it's meant to be. The art is amazing - it's Marc Hempel doing finishes over the pencils of newcomer Sonny Liew, and the end product is a joy to behold.
What else? I've got a movie in pre-production - Frost Flowers, from Hadaly Pictures. That's an erotic ghost story. The guys behind Hadaly are just amazing, and they've dealt me in on all the decision-making so far: it's going to be great fun seeing that project come to completion, if God spares us all (yeah, I know, that's an odd thing for an atheist to say – just force of habit).
I can't say anything just yet about the plot of Frost Flowers, but it's very different in tone and approach from anything I've done before, in any medium. That's probably because it evolved out of a three-way meeting of minds between me, the director (Andrea) and the producer(Alex), over some wonderful sessions: we're very much on the same wavelength. Their first feature, Luminal, is debuting at the Venice festival this Summer. It's a vampire flick with no vampires in it, according to Andrea... Anyway, we're looking at life and death and all the odd states in between, and we're doing this through the exploration of a love relationship that seems doomed but goes through some unexpected permutations.
I've also got a novel submission in with a UK publisher, and a couple of pitches in with Shelly for new Vertigo projects. John Bolton and I would like to work together again, having both hugely enjoyed the experience of doing The Furies, and I'd love to do another monthly with Peter Gross (which he says he's up for). I dunno. I'm sort of at a nexus at the moment, where things could go in a lot of different ways. It's an exciting time - exciting and scary. Still waiting for that big break [laughs].
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