Mike Carey talks ghosts, superheroes, fallen angels and the Devil You Know

Published On September 27, 2006 | By Joe Gordon | Books, Comics, Interviews

FPI: Books, comics, films; today I’m lucky enough to be talking to Mike Carey who has his talented fingers in all of these pies and quite possibly some more I don’t know about (you’re not writing a Forward-winning collection of poetry as well, are you??).

Mike, hello and welcome back to the FPI blog. Many of our readers will be familiar with you from your runs on well-known titles such as Hellblazer or your fascinating Lucifer series, but before you scaled the lofty heights of DC and now Marvel you started out writing for Indy comics and that great proving ground of many a Brit comics talent, 2000AD. Could you tell us a bit about how you got into the comics biz?

Mike: No poetry yet, Joe – but you never know…

I got into comics the long way, via fandom. I was writing reviews and articles for fanzines, most notably for a publication called Fantasy Advertiser. Then that fanzine, initially independent and amateur (in the best way) got itself bankrolled by a comics distribution company called Neptune. When Neptune decided to try publishing their own comics, I was well placed to pitch for a job writing one of them. In fact they commissioned two comics from me – Aquarius and The Legions of Hell – but went bankrupt before they could publish them. A few pages later surfaced in an anthology. By that time, though, I’d made some contacts on the other side of the Atlantic, and (through the kindness of Ken Meyer Jr and Lurene Haines) I got work with American indies such as Malibu and Caliber.

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FPI: You are one of an ever-growing number of comics creators who are also 2000AD alumni, with series like Carver Hale to your name there. Do you think 2000AD is still an important place for UK writers and artists to get a break? I noticed you were also involved with the Just 1 Page charity comics project – do you still keep an eye on the UK independent scene?

Mike: Yeah, I do think 2000AD still has that function: it’s great that there’s still a British proving ground for new talent. I’ve had my differences with Rebellion, the current owners, but I’m glad that 2000 is still thriving.

I got involved with Just 1 Page through my friendship with Ade Brown, and it’s something I think is hugely worthwhile as well as lots of fun to do. Ade is an amazing and inspirational guy.

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Do I watch the UK indie scene? Probably not as much as I should, but I do try to pick up UK small press comics when I can. There are some huge talents out there. I love what David Baillie is doing, for example.

FPI: You scripted a terrific run on Hellblazer (I thought it one of the best since the days of Jamie Delano myself); how difficult is it as a writer coming into such a well-established series and dealing with such a well-known and popular character? Does dealing with such a series also mean having to negotiate certain restrictions in terms of how you can develop both characters and stories or do you have a relatively free hand? I’m assuming you have to check that events you plot won’t contradict or clash with other events in the DC Universe?

Mike: Well, Vertigo is its own little fiefdom now, so the issue of shared continuity doesn’t really arise any more. There are always going to be editorial controls, but in practice I never had anything that I wanted to do vetoed. I’ve found all the Vertigo editors really supportive and rewarding to work with.

But taking over a long-running series does inevitably entail a lot of research to bring yourself up to speed. Even where it’s a series like Hellblazer, where I’d read more or less every issue before I took over as writer, you still want to go and immerse yourself in the stuff all over again to make sure you get voices right and remind yourself of all the quirky little details you might want to use or riff off.

Even then you can get tripped up on small details. I blush to confess that I got Chas’s first name wrong at one stage, although it was okay because it was put in the mouth of a character who was meeting him for the first time. Chas isn’t short for Charles: it’s a jokey homage to Slade’s manager. His real name’s Frank.

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FPI: I remember that coming up before (during the Garth Ennis period I think) when a villain who has captured Chas and John looks at his ID and asks him why he is called ‘Chas’ if his first name isn’t Charles. That admission probably makes me look like a colossal geek, but since I am that’s okay.

You trod further supernatural ground with the Eisner-nominated Lucifer series. Was the Morningstar a character you wanted to expand into his own tale or was it a project you were offered and thought, oh, I can do something interesting with this guy? Did you have any idea Lucifer would run so long or that it would gather such a loyal following (writer Richard Morgan picked out Lucifer for his top ten graphic novels list)?

Mike: I was offered the miniseries, and then I pitched the monthly on the back of that. It was a dream project, both because I was a rabid Sandman fan and because I had this longstanding obsession with ideas about free will and pre-determination that just seemed to fit really well into the space that Lucifer occupied in the Sandman universe.

I didn’t think it would last as long or do as well as it did – and it’s very cool that Richard, whose novels I love, should be a Lucifer reader. There was a time very early on when it looked as though the series would fold because the entire art team decamped en masse to other projects – because penciller Chris Weston and inker James Hodgkins had artistic differences. But we survived – and we picked up Peter Gross and Dean Ormston, whose talents helped to define the book.

It matters a lot to me that we got to tell the whole story of Lucifer as we saw it, and to bring it to the conclusion we’d always envisaged. I’m really proud of that book.

FPI: This version of Lucifer grew from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, where he famously had Lucifer quit Hell (one of the best conceits I’ve ever come across in comics I think) – did Neil offer any advice or comment on your series? Is it fair to say that a rather older writer, Milton, had a bit of influence here as well? I know you’ve directly quoted Milton for the title of your Hellblazer tale All His Engines (“Nor aught availed him now to have built in heaven high towers; nor did he ‘scape by all his engines, but was headlong sent with his industrious crew to build in hell.”) Any other works of world literature of myth which were influential in developing your version of Lucifer (or John Constantine for that matter)?

Mike: Yeah, Milton was in the mix, that’s for sure. And so was William Blake, who of course made the famous comment about Milton being in the devil’s party whether he knew it or not. Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell was my manifesto when I was in my late teens, so there are all sorts of references and borrowings there.

Neil was very actively involved at the beginning, reading plot breakdowns, advising on character development and in some cases (for example where Death, Destiny and Delirium had on-panel appearances) vetting dialogue. He was really generous with his time and really supportive, and I’ll always be grateful to him for that. As the series progressed, he took more and more of a back seat, but that was because he came to trust my instincts and was happy to let me make decisions about the cast of characters I’d assembled. Of course he continued to have a consulting role wherever the Endless were concerned.

FPI: The last part of Lucifer’s tale, Evensong, has just been solicited for January by DC. Is this really the last we’ll see of Lucifer or might he come back at some point? Would you be interested in returning to the character if he did?

Mike: That’s the end of Lucifer’s story as far as I’m concerned. I’d love to come back at some point and revisit some of the supporting cast – Elaine, Mazikeen, Gaudium and Spera, Jill presto – but I wouldn’t want to tell any more Lucifer stories. It would diminish the way the series ends.

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FPI: Naturally you can’t spoil the ending for readers, but any hints about what we can expect in the Evensong collection?

Mike: The consequences of the decisions that Lucifer and Elaine made in Morningstar play themselves out. A new Adversary is found for the new God, and the old one, Lucifer himself, decisively and irrevocably takes himself out of the game. And every single member of the cast gets their own separate and distinct coda. Some of my favourite issues in the whole series are in here – Eve and The Gaudium Option, for different reasons, have a special place in my heart.

FPI: You’ve also been involved with another Gaiman-generated idea in the shape of the comic adaptation of his Neverwhere novel. I remember talking to Neil the day after the first episode of the TV version was broadcast and we were both disappointed at how cheap the BBC had made it look (very poor quality video). Did you feel under additional pressure not only to deliver a version that would appeal to readers but to create one Neil would approve of? Is it more nerve-wracking to adapt the work of another writer you like than to work on your own characters?

Mike: It would have been nerve-wracking if I didn’t already know Neil and if we didn’t have such a good working relationship. Yes, there is a sense of obligation to deliver something that’s worthy of the source material, but again Neil was very much involved at the planning stage and we talked in a lot of detail about what sort of changes we wanted to make for the comic version.

I actually found Neverwhere really absorbing and enjoyable to write. It was the first adaptation I’d ever done, and it focused my mind on how comics differ from novels in terms of the way scenes are structured and how they link together. The tragedy was that the changes we made forced us to leave out some of the superb dialogue from the original. But the upside was that it was great riffing off the original and finding different ways to embed some of its verbal pyrotechnics in the visuals.

FPI: As well as a pretty prodigious output for DC you are writing for Mighty Marvel with Ultimate Fantastic Four and X-Men as well as getting to play with Ultimate Elektra and Spellbinders with Mike Perkins. How does it feel for a boy from Blighty to find himself writing some of the most famous characters in all of Comicdom? Did you ever imagine when you were doing rockstar comics that one day someone would say, hey, Mike, how would you like to come write Fantastic Four for us?

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Mike: No, that one came out of the blue. I actually thought it was a hoax at first. When you get a phone call, and the guy at the other end of the line says “Hello, this is Joe Quesada”, your natural instinct is to say “Yeah? Just how gullible do you think I am?” It’s been an amazing year – almost impossible to believe. I love writing Ultimate FF and I love writing X-Men. Man, I grew up on these characters! It’s going to sound like a cliché, but it’s a dream come true. Even though… well, what we were saying earlier about continuity – there are over three thousand issues worth of X-Men related comics out there. That’s a hell of a reading list.

FPI: When you take on such long-established characters you have to walk a tightrope between remaining true to the character’s history and heritage while still trying to innovate and offer the fans something fresh and new. I’m maybe putting you on the spot a bit here, but how would you say your FF or X-Men differ from previous incarnations? How did working on established, hugely popular series like this differ from, say, working on Spellbinders for Marvel?

Mike: Well Spellbinders was a personal project, it was working with the wonderful Mackenzie Cadenhead and it was a chance to get together with Mike Perkins again, so it felt more like a holiday than a job of work.

How are my versions of these characters different? I don’t think they are. Obviously I write them with my own nuances and my own inflections, but the aim is to stay in keeping with the characters as already established as far as possible. Your personal touch then shows itself in the way the characters develop – the direction they take while you’re writing them. And I guess obviously you give your own favourites that bit more prominence. One of the things I wanted to do in writing Rogue was to take her back to her roots and to remind readers what makes her so very cool and so very dangerous.

FPI: While all of this not inconsiderable work was going on with Marvel and DC you’ve also been busy here, there and everywhere seemingly, with work on Red Sonja and Vampirella among others. With such a full slate for the two biggest comics publishers around what drew you to working on these two very different femme fetales? Did you enjoy working with Michael Avon Oeming?

Mike: I’m attracted to the wrong kind of woman, clearly. The Red Sonja gig was fun mainly because I wanted to try co-writing with Michael and see how that would work. It was a very organic partnership, and I think we both had a great time doing it.

Vampirella was irresistible because – – well, you know, because she’s Vampirella. If someone invites you to redefine a pulp icon for a new generation, you find it hard to say no.

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FPI: Very true. And then we come to one of the other hats you wear, that of a novelist. We had your debut prose novel Devil You Know from Orbit this Easter with the second, Vicious Circle just about to hit the shelves now. The books centre around a somewhat down-at-heels freelance exorcist Felix Castor in London. For the benefit of those who haven’t picked them up yet, could you tell us a little about Felix and the basic premise behind the series?

Mike: Absolutely. Castor lives in the London of the present day, but in one respect it’s different from our own London. The dead have started to rise in a variety of forms, and there’s suddenly a gap in the market for people who have the skills to put them down again. Castor is an exorcist in the way that a Raymond Chandler gumshoe like Philip Marlowe is a detective: he does it for a few quid a day plus expenses.

It’s an interesting world. There are ghosts more or less everywhere, but that’s only for starters. Sometimes the ghosts find their way back into their own flesh and manage to animate it: then you’ve got zombies. Sometimes they invade an animal body and reshape it according to their memories of what they used to look like when they were alive: then you’ve got werewolves. There are also demons, as Castor finds to his cost in the first book in the series: someone raises a succubus – a sex demon – to kill him.

Each Castor book has Castor investigating a situation which involves a haunting or something similar: but there’s also an arc story concerning the bigger question of why the dead are rising now and what it might mean for humankind.

FPI: When I first heard about Devil You Know I was intrigued, but I have to confess I was slightly worried that it might be too close to Hellblazer territory; I was quickly relieved of this worry when I read it and found that Felix was very much his own character (although anyone who enjoys Hellblazer would enjoy Felix Castor I think). Was this a bit of a worry for you when you were creating Felix, that it may either be too close to Constantine territory or at least that readers may think that way?

Mike: The second, yeah – I was worried that people might think I was ripping off Hellblazer. Particularly because Castor is a scouser living in London. The thing is, that’s not a nod in the direction of John Constantine: it’s actually autobiographical. A lot of Castor’s backstory is my backstory – an old but serviceable trick when you want to get into someone else’s head is to build bridges between their life and yours.

But I think if you read The Devil You Know with an open mind, the image of John Constantine fades pretty quickly. Castor has a very different voice, and a very different set of obsessions.

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FPI: As a fan of both characters I’d agree with that; in fact I think Fix now resides in my imagination closer to Philip Marlowe than he does to John Constantine. As well as Felix and his supporting characters you seem to be indulging in that aspect of SF&F writing that many of the fans (including me) love, which is world-building. Felix’s London and Britain is almost like our own, but subtly different; people are aware of ghosts and supernatural entities such as were-creatures (although many choose to pretend they don’t exist). What made you decide that instead of having the monsters and spooks only in the shadows you would give them a legitimate existence in the society Felix inhabits?

Mike: I think because that’s when things get really interesting – when we have to meet the alien and adjust to having it there as an ongoing presence. That’s actually much more of a factor in the second book, in fact: we start to see the kinds of infrastructure that zombies in particular would need to have in order to function, and the kinds of services and products that the presences of the dead would throw into prominence. There’s a woman named Imelda Probert – the Ice-Maker – who I particularly enjoyed writing.

FPI: Yes, I though she was a nice touch and I like how including her services expanded the role of one of the supporting cast (Fix’s paranoid zombie information hound, a great character in his own right). Even in the space of two books I’ve noticed that world developing; you’ve hinted at things like Parliament passing laws to protect the rights of the dead from being exploited by mediums or exorcists for example, while expanding more on how the supernatural works within Castor’s universe and we’ve even seen academics experimenting with ghosts (not always with much in the way of morality). You’ve got Felix (and therefore the reader) questioning death and the afterlife – what happens to spirits when he exorcises them for instance? I’m hoping we can look forward to more of this sort of development in the next book. Do you enjoy this aspect of the writing, getting to build detail in your own world? And does it allow you to comment on things like current events, society, religious beliefs and the like as well as adding believability and substance to Felix’s world?

Mike: I love it – I find it totally absorbing. And yeah, I think you do get that element of slightly sidelong commentary on some aspects of our own world. In the second novel, Vicious Circle, we get to see how some of the world’s religions have reacted to the presence of the dead. And we see how the move towards recognising the dead as people immediately becomes a political hot potato where vested interests rush to stake a claim.

I like starting with a single premise and then unpicking all the different implications and corollaries of it. Keep watching that academic, for example – Jenna-Jane Mulbridge. With her ruthless pragmatism and her conviction that she’s doing reconnaissance for a future war between the living and the dead, she’s got a huge part to play in how the larger story unfolds.

FPI: Oohh, that sounds almost like Peter F Hamilton territory, the struggle between living and the breath-challenged! Roll on book 3… You’ve been praised by an award-winning author (Richard Morgan) for Devil You Know and now you are on a literary awards shortlist yourself with Devil making the final shortlist for the Goss First Novel Award at the Guildford Literary Festival. I know the guys at Orbit are delighted at this – you must be feeling pretty chuffed yourself? It’s also pretty nice to see a work from the fantastic genres being treated with respect from a mainstream literary award – that must add to the pleasure of being nominated, surely?

Mike: Yes! We’re the only genre novel on the shortlist! My cup runneth over.

FPI: Given your comics background I have to ask, are we ever likely to see a comics adaptation of Felix Castor and if so, would you write it or prefer to have someone else adapt it? Has there been any interest from the movie moguls in optioning Felix Castor for a possible movie? Or considering how hot supernatural series have been recently (such as Medium), a TV series?

Mike: The TV rights have been optioned by Bentley, the company who produce Midsomer Murders. I’ll be delighted – really ecstatic – if the Castor novels spin out into a TV series. I think they’d work beautifully in that format.

If there was a Castor comic then yeah, ideally I’d want to write it myself. It would be fun to tell Castor stories in a different medium.

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FPI: That’s good new on the option front – I had the impression he would suit a TV series better than a movie since it allows for more character development thana two-hour flick. You have a pretty full slate on the forthcoming comics front, with work like God Save the Queen, Faker and Crossing Midnight among others to look forward to, not to mention the third Felix Castor novel. Care to give us a little taster of what Mike Carey goodies the readers can look forward to in coming months?

Mike: Well, apart from the above… I’m doing an Ultimate Vision miniseries for Marvel, spinning out of Warren Ellis’s Ultimate Galactus trilogy. I’m retelling the origin of the Beast – one of my favourite X-Men – for the Mythos series. I’m teaming up with Mike Perkins again for a story in the Marvel Christmas Special, called A is for Annihilus. I’m writing an OGN for the My Faith in Frankie team of Sonny Liew and Marc Hempel, and I’m collaborating with my daughter, Louise, on a book that the wonderful Aaron Alexovich will draw.

FPI: That’s a huge amount of work, but it does keep you off the streets and out of mischief I suppose. Looking at your current load and your forthcoming works I need to ask, when the heck do you get to sleep, Mike???

Mike: I got some the week before last. Unless I just dreamed that…

FPI: Mike Carey, thank you very much for talking to us. You can get a regular update-fix on Mike’s latest work over on his own site.

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About The Author

Joe Gordon

Joe Gordon is ForbiddenPlanet.co.uk’s chief blogger, which he set up in 2005. Previously, he was professional bookseller for over 12 years as well as a lifelong reader and reviewer, especially of comics and science fiction works.