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Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Mike Carey on Comics Writing & Beyond

"Mike Carey on Comics Writing & Beyond"

conversation, Mike Carey + Neal Romanek

I had the privilege of interviewing Mike Carey, writer of "X-Men" and the "Sandman" spin-off "Lucifer", as well as creator of the Felix Castor series of horror/detective novels by Orbit Books. Mike has also recently written "Re-Gifters" for DC Comics' new "Minx" imprint of graphic novels for teen girls. His third Felix Castor book, "Dead Men's Boots", will be available this September.

How did you become involved in DC's Minx line and "Re-Gifters"? Did you have to employ any new tools to write specifically for a young female audience?

It was less of a stretch than it looks. I'd already written "My Faith In Frankie" (Vertigo), of course, and that gave me a chance to exercise these particular muscles - to try out writing for a younger audience or at least in a "teen fiction" mode. I really enjoyed it and I was hugely satisfied with the result.

Then when Shelly invited me to pitch for Minx, her first suggestion was that I could team up with Sonny Liew and Marc Hempel - bringing the Frankie creative team back together again. We already knew each other's strengths and foibles, and we'd alreadly got into a really good work groove on that first outing, so pitching "Re-Gifters" didn't feel like much of a leap at all. It was very much a question of applying the "Frankie" aesthetic to a different - non-fantasy - context. Structure wasn't an issue because we knew that Sonny could take style shifts and flashbacks and multiple points of view in his stride. So we pulled out all the stops. "Re-Gifters" is "Frankie" with a bigger core cast and a bigger canvas.

Well, that's not true, of course, because "Frankie" also had that element of playing on mythological themes and questions of religious belief. In "Re-Gifters" that wider dimension is much more subliminally present in the relationships between the different L.A. subcultures and the protagonist's trying to find her niche within that complex web of relationships. But what I mean is that we knew where we were going, and we knew how we wanted to get there. There was never a phase of sitting around and asking ourselves "How are we going to do this?"

Clearly, though, the narrative techniques are very different from my superhero work and from most of my Vertigo work. That was part of the fun.

As your career has progressed, and the popular media industry with it, how have your attitudes and your approaches changed?

I guess the big difference is that I'm writing for a living now. When I started out, and way, way into my run on "Lucifer", I was a teacher who wrote in the evenings and at weekends, around the edges of a very demanding job. Then I made the big jump - as two smaller jumps, because at the college's invitation I took a sabbatical before I quit teaching for good - and for the past five years I've just been doing this, full-time. That was a huge change in my life, and at first it was hard to adjust. Obviously I began to take on a bigger volume of work, but that's never really been a problem: what was weird was sitting at home, waving my wife off to the office and my kids to school, and then hammering away at the keyboard in a room by myself for eight hours.

But that's just logistical stuff, obviously, and you get used to it. In a more significant sense, I had to start seeing writing as a career rather than a hobby and I had to start making decisions about where I was going, what I was aiming for. That didn't come naturally to me: I'm both a disorganised person and a retiring one, so I don't push hard towards specific goals, treading the slow and the unwary under my feet. My instinct is to keep plugging away and wait for things to happen, which was why it took me so long to progress from comics journalism into comic scriptwriting. I'm still not aggressive: but I do have more of a sense of direction now, even if it wavers a lot.

What's the biggest roadblock you've had to face as a writer?

Probably the biggest crisis came quite early on in my relationship with DC. I wrote "The Morningstar Option" for Alisa Kwitney, and in the process became very good friends with her - which was hard not to do because she was an inspirational and very supportive editor. But then Alisa took maternity leave and left Vertigo - as it turned out permanently - and I didn't know anyone else at DC from Adam. Or Eve. There was a very real danger that I'd suddenly find myself on the outside looking in again, losing all the ground I'd gained.

Two things saved me. One was that Alisa commissioned a second miniseries - "Petrefax" - from me before she left DC, giving me a lifeline and an ongoing link to Vertigo for at least four months. And the other was that I made the decision to go to San Diego that year for Comic-Con and made contact with Shelly Bond, who edited me on a short story for the Flinch horror anthology and ultimately commissioned the "Lucifer" ongoing. I stayed in the game, in other words - with the help of two exceptional editors. And everything since, as far as my career is concerned, has really followed on from the decisions of that time.

There's the adage: "It's not enough to have talent, you must have a talent for having talent." So how do you operate as the Mike Carey "brand", as a business person who may sometimes have to act and think differently from the author?

I think you develop a kind of double-vision where - even while you're immersed in one project - part of your mind is always engaged in racking up the next one. That's a change that comes about as soon as you're relying on your writing income: you worry about gaps, about periods when there's nothing happening, so you try to keep them as short and infrequent as you can. I'm always talking to editors, and I'm always throwing out pitches or jotting down rough ideas for possible stories. Having said that, though, I know a lot of creators who are much more pro-active, much more aggressive than I am in doing that stuff - who set up and maintain the brand with great skill and great dedication. I'm kind of ham-fisted at it, if I'm honest. And I do the bits of it that come easy to me, like writing the blog and chatting on the occasional message board, and doing signings every so often. Stuff that looks daunting I shamelessly duck.

The part of marketing that I enjoy most is going to cons. I don't really regard that as work, because my own inner fan-boy is still alive and well and any sci-fi or comics convention is going to provide me with a lot of pleasure and diversion. But it does also get you onto people's radar, so in that sense it's a promotional thing.

The communications revolution has affected the balance of power in all areas of business. Do you see UK and European popular media changing in prominence or influence? Or do you suppose there'll be more consolidation of US influence, with stuff farmed out to international artists?

I think the hegemony of the US media is very deeply entrenched now, across the globe. And speaking as an English writer working overwhelmingly for US publishers, I can see exactly how this process works - at least in a niche market like comics. The truth is, although there is still arguably a UK comics market, there probably isn't a living to be made in it. Certainly not for a writer, anyway. If you get in at 2000AD, you may end up writing a regular strip for them: but that means five or six pages a week, at forty or fifty quid a page, for however long the strip lasts - then a frantic round of pitching and developing to get the next strip up and running. It's fine when you're young and unencumbered, but it's not going to get you all that far in the longer term. A lot of people see that as just a calling card for the American market, because there's nowhere to progress to in the British market. Literally nowhere.

Having said that, European publishers like Humanoids and Soleil are making increasing use of British creators: unlike the UK they have a robust domestic market that scarcely intersects at all with the market for translated American books. So DC and Marvel rule the roost but they're not the only game in town - and I don't think we're seeing a gradual process of cultural saturation and colonisation. It amazed me when I was at the Lille Comics Festival last year to see how the three audiences - for US superhero books, for the home-grown "Franco-Belge" strips, and for Manga - exist side by side and are even served to some extent by separate specialty shops.

What have been your observations of the "New Authorship", with creators working easily across multiple media - in your case, films, prose, comics. Is there a real falling away of specialization - or pigeonholing? Or has it always been this way?

It's probably always been there. Look at how many successful novelists have written movie screenplays, going way back to the fifties. It's almost inevitable, if you're making a name for yourself in one creative field, that you'll eventually get noticed and get offers from adjacent ones.

The degree of inter-penetration we're seeing now though strikes me as something new, if only because it's been formalised and institutionalised. San Diego Comic-Con has so many movie and TV people in attendance now that the straight comics stuff has come to seem almost like an off-shoot. DC and Marvel are aggressively recruiting novelists to write books for them, both because it's a fair bet that they'll already know how to write and because they bring fresh perspectives with them. Not to mention dedicated fan bases in a lot of cases.

I don't see this as a bad thing. Very few writers in my experience think of the medium they work in as their natural home or as the limit of their ambitions. Most writers like telling stories, and most writers like to experiment: I know generalisations are dangerous but I believe those things to be true. The medium may be the message, in a lot of cases - has to be, in a lot of cases - but for that very reason, if you've got something different to say you'll often reach out for a different medium to say it in.

What's the most practical lesson you've learned? The thing you've used most in improving your craft?

This isn't my insight - it's Peter Gross's (artist "Lucifer", "Chosen", et al)- but I quote it all the time because it's so useful as a mantra when you're breaking into the business and when you're trying to establish a name for yourself.

Peter says there are three qualities that it's desirable for a comics creator to have: to be really good, really quick or really nice. To be all three of those things would be great, but any two will do. It's the honest-to-God truth.

Will we see you this July at Comic-Con?

I should be tacking between the Hachette, Marvel, DC and Virgin booths, and I expect I'll have signing sessions at all three. Don't know if I'll be on a panel, but I'll do it if I'm asked. On the floor... man, SDCC is so huge these days that you're unlikely to meet the same person twice in the aisles over the whole week. But it is right at the end of a three-week signing tour for me, so I'll be the guy who looks like a used dishrag.


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