A Biff Bam Pop! Exclusive Interview: JW Ward talks with The Unwritten’s Mike Carey

If you ever passed Mike Carey on the street, you probably wouldn’t even notice him.

The 52-year-old man stands at an average height and is of average build, with a full head of greying hair.  He smiles easily, but not too much or too little.  To those that greet him, he offers a handshake of reasonable strength; not aggressive, but not soft or loose either.

Even his name, remarkably unremarkable, can slip from the mind with ease.

If you’ve read X-Men: Legacy from Marvel Comics, Vertigo’s The Unwritten or the Eisner Award-nominated Sandman spinoff series Lucifer from 2000 to 2006 however, Mike Carey is impossible to forget.

Originally from Liverpool, England, Carey has enjoyed a career writing comic books that spans over three decades and over 40 titles that also include Vertigo’s Hellblazer, Dynamite Entertainment’s Red Sonja: She-Devil with a Sword and Marvel Comics’ Ultimate Fantastic Four, in addition to publishing a series of novels about an exorcist-for-hire named Felix Castor.

In Toronto recently for a signing at local comic book store The Beguiling and as the guest of honour at the Toronto SpecFic Colloquium, Carey sat down with Biff Bam Pop! for a half-hour chat on his many works and his approach to the art of storytelling.

In part one of our interview, Mike discusses how he became a writer, working on Vertigo Comics’ Sandman spinoff Lucifer, and how he landed his recently-ended gig writing Marvel’s not-so merry band of mutants in X-Men: Legacy.

If you’re not a fan of spoilers, beware.

Biff Bam Pop!: Mike, thanks for coming to visit us here in Toronto.  Let’s dive right in – before you were a writer, what the heck were you doing?

Mike Carey: I was teaching for fifteen years, mostly senior high school level, 16 to 18 (year-olds), and then for three years I was teaching adult returners to education; people who dropped out of the education system and decided later in life that they wanted to get a university education.  I did what were called access courses, which was very rewarding and I loved the job.  But I was writing around the edges of it, and gradually, the writing became more and more the focus of my life, and eventually about twelve years ago, I gave up the day job.

BBP: In a lot of circles, you’re best known for your work in the comic book genre.  What is the appeal of writing graphic literature?

MC:  I was on a panel at San Diego (Comic-Con) about five years ago now with a whole bunch of people, including Orson Scott Card and Tad Williams and Richard Morgan and Christopher Golden.  (Chris) made a point – every medium has one thing that it does better than any other medium.  If you want spectacular action scenes, you’ll go to a movie.  If you want to know the inner workings of a character’s mind and motivations, you’ll go to a novel.

Comic books are unique because they are actually two narratives, the verbal and the visual, which sometimes work in parallel and sometimes strike off at other angles to each other and can work completely independent of each other.  There’s something about that that appeals to me.  But most people who go into writing and drawing comics started out as fanboys and fangirls, reading the stuff and loving the stories as a consumer.  You get comics from an early age.  I learned to read from British humour comics.  We used to have a great tradition in the U.K. of little anthology comics for young kids that were just funny stories, one-page gag strips.  I met the American superhero comic books when I was five or six and never looked back.  I think they’re in my blood.

BBP:  One of the big books you are associated with is Lucifer, from Vertigo.  How’d you get that gig?

MC:  That’s a weird story because somebody else got that gig before me.  I’d been writing a lot of stuff for Caliber (Comics).  I did Inferno for them, Dr. Faustus, Suicide Kings, and everything I did for Caliber I would send to the Vertigo editors, especially Alisa Kwitney, who was an editor on the last issues of Sandman, with begging letters saying, “I’d love to work for your guys.”  We had a dialogue going at one point and I was pitching stuff for The Dreaming, but nothing stuck.

I had more or less given up hope, and then I got a call from Alisa out of the blue and she told me they were starting this new series, The Sandman Presents, and asked me if I would like to try out.  As it turned out, they had this other writer on board, they’d approved the pitch, this other writer had gone to script, and for whatever reason they just decided that although the script worked as a story, it didn’t work as a vehicle for the character.  That character was Lucifer.  They needed somebody else to run with that ball on very, very short notice; to come up with a pitch in two days and a script within a week.  She said, “Do you want to do this, and do you want to do it badly enough that you don’t sleep for the next week?”  I said absolutely.

It was my dream job.  I’d learned an awful lot about structure in comic book stories from reading Sandman.  It was doing things that nobody else had done before, arguably Alan Moore started the ball rolling with Swamp Thing, and Sandman just creates this incredible epic structure across six or seven years’ worth of sequential stories.  Within, there’re movements, digressions and interludes that ultimately weave together into one spectacular tapestry.  I think what I was doing in Lucifer starts out as an homage to that style of storytelling.

BBP: While a big theme in Lucifer was about one character trying to overcome and live beyond the expectations of a “parent,” many issues took the time to focus on other characters, like Mazikeen (Lucifer’s consort from Hell), and give them a fully developed story arc.  Where’d the idea for that approach come from?

MC:  I don’t know is the short answerI remember having a conversation with Neil (Gaiman), who was the story consultant on all the Sandman Presents projects and on Lucifer for a large part of its run.  When I was pitching Lucifer as a monthly, he said to me, “You really need to do this.  You really need to write a monthly comic because you can’t know from the outside, you can’t know until you’ve done it, what an incredible mixture of planning and serendipity it all is.  I think I said to him like, “You’re telling me Sandman wasn’t entirely worked out in advance?” and he said, “That’s exactly what I’m saying.”

There were some things that were very worked out and some things that just happened because they happened.”  Some characters we just introduced, like Gaudium (an evil cherub), to serve a specific purpose in one story, and then we fell in love with him and wanted to explore and use him more and bring him back into the story.  Mazikeen was like that.  Obviously, she’s one of Neil’s characters, but the way the relationship between (she and Lucifer) works out and that ultimately she becomes the Morningstar, she takes the mantle of power when he leaves.  We didn’t have any idea that stuff would happen, but we really, really wanted to explore and develop that relationship.  It was a mixture of stuff we knew all along that we wanted to do, like the second war in Heaven and Elaine’s apotheosis, and other stuff was just serendipitous.  A great idea would strikes us and we’d need to do that.

BBP:  At the other big company (Marvel Comics), you recently worked on X-Men: Legacy.  How’d you get that assignment?

MC: That arose out of a meeting I had at San Diego a long, long time ago, I couldn’t give you the exact date, but I was exclusively working for DC at that time and I met (Marvel Senior Editor) Axel Alonso.  He said, “If you ever find yourself free and you want to do some superhero stuff, give us a call.  I’m sure we can something that would interest you.” Eventually, I did.  Not then, but a little while later, I made that call and he said, “We’ll get back to you.”  First of all, I did Ultimate Elektra and Daredevil, then I got a call from (Marvel editor) Mike Marts, and he said, “Do you want to write X-Men?”  I actually thought it was a friend of mine pulling a joke on me.  I almost said, “Go to hell man, stop playing me.”  Fortunately, I didn’t say that, because it was actually Michael Marts.

The audition process took the form of, “Who would you like on your team and why? What would you do with them?”  You get this cast of thousands to choose an ensemble from, and I decided to go for a cast that would be so unstable that even if they weren’t facing external threats they would just fall apart under the tensions inherent in the relationships.

What I said earlier, that I met the American superhero comics at a very early age, the first one I read was the Lee/Kirby Fantastic Four, and the second was X-Men.  I grew up with those characters, so writing additional chapters to a story that you yourself were reading and relishing as a child is a very particular pleasure.  I loved writing X-Men.  It was an incredible opportunity.

BBP:  What are the differences writing for Marvel versus DC?

MC:  There have been enormous differences for me.  I think the answer to that is going to vary a lot depending on what titles.  Within those publishing houses, there are sub-categories.  At Marvel, the Ultimate office was a separate entity, the X-Men office is a separate entity.  I’ve worked extensively with the Vertigo editors, but almost never with the DCU editors.  I’ve had really, really rewarding experiences at both publishers and I’ve made great friends there.  There are people who I hope I’ll be friends with for the whole of my life.  There are huge differences in approach.

With Marvel, my experience was that if you pitch something, they’ll run with it straight away.  The approvals process is really fast, really streamlined, and before you know it, they’ve assigned an artist and they’re soliciting.  At DC, certainly at Vertigo, the approvals process is more painstaking.  You’ll work with the editor on several drafts of a pitch and there’ll be an awful lot of conscious forward-planning before you get the green light.  There’s a difference there in editorial approach.  After that though, everything comes down in this business to individual, one-to-one relationships – the relationships between the creators and the editor.

I feel I’ve been lucky in both Vertigo and Marvel.  I’ve worked with some of the best editors in the business.  My first-ever editor at Vertigo was Alisa Kwitney, who has forgotten more about story than I will ever know.  I think she has a degree in narrative theory and she has this awesome grasp of all the different structures a story could have.  And then Shelly Bond, who was Shelly Roeburg back then.  Both editors who are incredibly detail-oriented, who follow through every stage of a project with you.  At Marvel, Mike Marts, Nick Lowe, Daniel Ketchum – really great guys, really supportive editors.  It’s hard to talk in general about differences in approach because I think what matters is you find somebody that works well with you and you stick to that person for as long as you can.

In part 2 of our exclusive interview with Mike Carey, learn about his creative process, future projects and his latest work with Vertigo, The Unwritten.

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