Q&A: Mike Carey

To many people who read this blog, Mike Carey needs no introduction. At first known for his work on Lucifer, spinning off out of the Sandman mythos, he’s been seen lately putting his own spin on X-Men and Ultimate Fantastic Four. Never straying far from his Vertigo work, he’s got a new series coming out called The Unwritten, reuniting with Lucifer artist Peter Gross. It tells the story of a man forever trapped by his father writing him into his old novels … and then finding that world crashing in on his reality.

Mr. Carey was kind enough to answer some questions for Doomkopf, even divulging that he did, in fact, once write a Pantera comic book …

What was the inspiration behind “The Unwritten”?

It was a lot of things. Peter and I both came on board with ideas for what seemed at first to be entirely different stories – and then somehow they ended up colliding at a high velocity and became The Unwritten. One of the strands that fed into it was definitely the real life experiences of Christopher Robin Milne – the son of A.A.Milne, who became the Christopher Robin of the Winnie the Pooh books. He then grew up having to bear the burden of being famous as a fictional character created by someone else. As he said later in life, he felt as though his childhood had been appropriated by his father for his own purposes. That situation is mirrored in the experiences of our protagonist, Tom Taylor.

But there were other things feeding in, too. Peter and I had talked a lot about the paradox of suspended disbelief – the fact that so many Vertigo writers, ourselves included, are resolute atheists who nonetheless choose to write extended stories built around religious themes. We became fascinated by the two kinds of faith – the faith you have in a system of belief, a religion, and the faith you have in a story while you’re reading (or writing) it.

In the early preview pages for it, you have your character at a nerd convention getting blindsided with questions. Is this something you’ve based on your own convention experiences? What parallels are there between Tom Taylor and yourself?

A nerd convention? Watch your language, Sonny Jim… Yeah, we were very definitely drawing on our own convention experiences. Not directly – neither of us has ever been challenged to justify our entire existence at a Con – but still, there are rhythms and protocols and social norms at Cons that are pretty unique. I think we were celebrating that rather than satirising it. The wonderful thing about Cons is that they erase distance: creators at Cons become fanboys and fangirls again, which is a very healthy and pleasurable thing. Most of us got into this business out of love, after all – god knows, there are easier ways to get rich.

Are there parallels between us and Tom? No, I don’t think there are. We see him as this kind of hapless Everyman character, someone who’s very easy to identify with. It’s always easier to empathise with a failure than with a success, I guess, and Tom is a guy who’s struggling to get his head out from under a whole lot of crap. But then, there’s also this other side to his nature, a nobler side, I guess you could say. In the end, he has to do some stuff that – frankly – I couldn’t do. Couldn’t get close to doing.

Having said that, you put bits of yourself into all your characters. But you’re usually the last one to see the link.

What’s the ultimate trajectory of “The Unwritten” – do you have a beginning, a middle and an end in mind, or is it something that you can see going on ad infinitum?

It has a definite beginning and ending, but it doesn’t have a definite middle. That was the case with LUCIFER, too, and I’m sure it’s the case with a lot of serial stories. We know the rough shape of Tom’s odyssey, and we know where it finally has to bring him out, but the precise route is something that will happen as it happens because it happens. With LUCIFER, we became aware after a certain point that we were choosing to tell certain stories, choosing not to tell others – charting one possible path through a narrative forest where many, many other paths were available. Every decision opened some directions up and closed others down. I was unwriting as much as I was writing.

So yeah, The Unwritten will have a finite lifespan, but it could comfortably take us six, seven, eight years or so to get to where we want it to end. We’re crossing our fingers and hoping that we find our audience, as we did with LUCIFER, so the story gets the space it needs to play out.

While doing this series, you’re also continuing to write “X-Men: Legacy.” What are the challenges and advantages with forging your own story with your own characters as opposed to working with characters with 40+ years of history?

Oh man, yeah. When I was offered X-Men, I had this hugely schizophrenic reaction. On the one hand, obviously, I was thrilled. Writing X-Men! That was the book that brought me back into reading comics in my teens when I’d stopped, and it’s always had a special place in my imaginative life. But then, on the other hand, was I up to it? I had a lot of knowledge about certain eras, certain characters, patchy knowledge of others, near-total ignorance of some. I was very, very excited and very, very scared.

But the thing about all that backstory is that it’s like a wave that’s headed in a certain direction. It actually gives you momentum if you use it right: it lets you play off what’s already established and tell stories that are richer and more interesting because of how they relate to what came before. You have to avoid seeing continuity as a straight jacket.

But there’s a huge excitement in setting up a fictional world that’s all your own – in making the hundreds or thousands of little decisions about character, plot, tone, theme, approach, narrative voice and so on that come together to form the total experience. I’ve relished doing that with The Unwritten, not least because I’m doing it in tandem with Peter, who is a hugely inspirational guy to work with. It’s like having an extra brain.

In addition, your Vertigo work was largely characters that had been pre-established – Lucifer and Hellblazer. What were you able to add to these characters that you felt made them your own?

I think that’s a question you’d have to ask someone else!

With Lucifer, I felt it took me about six or seven issues before I had the voice absolutely right. I don’t mean his voice so much as the narrative voice – the right way to tell stories with Lucifer at the centre of them. It all clicked with issue 4 of the ongoing, Born With the Dead, which is still one of the stories I’m proudest of having written. It introduced Elaine Belloc, who plays a hugely important part in the overall story, and it was the first of those one-offs that became part of our signature style on the book.

My approach to John Constantine, which I later refined with Felix Castor, was to write him as myself – to give him bits of my past, and set him against backdrops that meant something to me. It was a case of getting the staging right – and then everything else seemed to flow. It helped that the background he’d already been given was so close to my own. And I think it was a good call to build slowly, seeing John in domestic settings with friends and family, reclaiming bits of his old turf, before we got to the cosmic horror stuff.

How do you distinguish between the Mike Carey that does mature reader oriented Vertigo books, more mainstream oriented superhero books and the prose writer? Is there a method you have to doing each facet of your writing?

If there is, it’s not one that I can explain in words. Obviously different genres have different narrative formulas, that you alternately adhere to and subvert, but I try not to go in thinking “because it’s X, I can’t do Y”. Most times, if there’s a story you want to tell, you can find a way to tell it that’s appropriate to the context and the audience.

Prose writing is different mainly because of the way in which you deliver it. Comics work on short deadlines, prose on much, much longer ones, so you have more freedom to tamper, fine-tune and otherwise second-guess yourself in prose writing. I suppose that means that I put more emphasis on the detail of the forward planning in a comic book, because the safety net isn’t there in the same way. You have to live with your mistakes.

What’s the darkest secret hiding in your writing career? Is there something you look back on and just hope to god none of your fans find?

Pantera, by Rock-It Comics. It was a story in which the heavy metal rock band Pantera fight evil vampires in a subterranean city. And it stank on ice. It may not – quite – have been bad beyond all infinite dimensions of possible badness, but Lord, it wasn’t good. I’ve got no quarrel with Trevor Goring’s art – he did the best he could with a really lame story based on a really unworkable premise.

What comic projects would you like to take on in the future? What stories of your own are still forming? What characters would you like a chance to write?

I’ve always had a hankering to write Doctor Strange. I’d like to carry on writing in the X-verse for as long as I possibly can. I’d like to write some more pure fantasy, as opposed to horror fantasy or fantasy horror. I’d like to do some YA novels. And I’d like to take my kids to the premiere of a movie for which I wrote the screenplay. Those are my main ambitions right now.