Mike Carey, over the last decade, has become one of comics’ most valued assets. Whether exploring the motivations of Lucifer within the Vertigo universe or adding to the legend that is The X-Men, he’s shown characters in lights never before imagined. 2009 finds him not only having launched his new creator-owned series, The Unwritten to rave reviews and sell-out issues, but also adding to the story of one of comics’ FIRST superheroes, The Torch, on sale now.
As a child, what were you reading?
Comics, at first. I learned to read from the Beano, and from Leo Baxendale’s Powerhouse Comics, Wham, Pow and Smash. Then I went to school and discovered Enid Blyton, which began my life-long love affair with the fantasy genre. Later on… Ursula LeGuin, Roger Zelazny, Michael Moorcock, Mervyn Peake. I was always haunting my local library, looking for something new. The bright yellow Gollancz sci-fi spines were usually a good index to follow.
What books are you currently enjoying?
I’m reading Reif Larsen’s Selected Works of T.S.Spivet with a lot of pleasure – and also Marilynne Robinson’s ineffably beautiful Gilead.
This September sees you co-writing The Torch #1, along with Alex Ross. The Torch has a history going back some seventy years, what can readers expect from this mini-series?
It’s very much an exploration of what makes the character tick – what makes him unique. There are three arcs or acts within the series, and the first is called The Soul of an Old Machine. I think that gives you a fair idea of what we’re trying to do. We have the Torch resurrected by the Mad Thinker, for reasons that aren’t even slightly altruistic, and a whole lot of consequences following on from that act. It’s an odyssey for Jim Hammond, if you like, as he tries to come to terms with his rebirth and to rediscover his humanity. Because for an artificial man, humanity isn’t part of the basic kit.
The Torch is one of comics’ first superheroes, possessing ties with nearly everyone within the Marvel Universe . As a writer and more importantly, a fan of comics, what connection or responsibilities do you feel to a character knowing they’ve been around for seventy years?
I think when I write a character with a long pedigree, I do so with a conscious desire to acknowledge what came before and to keep faith with it. You don’t limit yourself to old riffs, but you try to make sure that nothing you do is incompatible with the way the character has been defined – no moral miracles, as Chesterton put it. To use a clumsy metaphor, you’re trying to make the colours that are already there shine out more vividly, rather than choosing a colour scheme from scratch. That should never feel like a constraint, though: if it does, arguably you should have picked a different project.
Is there a difference, more specifically, a different mental process that goes on in writing your own works such as The Unwritten versus company-owned interests such as a DC/Wildstorm’s Wetworks or Marvel’s X-Men?
Oh yeah, I’d say there is. With The Unwritten, or Crossing Midnight, or My Faith In Frankie or Faker, we had no responsibilities to anything outside our own heads. All the architecture was ours. That gives you a freedom you can’t have – and don’t expect – on a franchise book.
You could see it in terms of different stages in a process. When you create a new title from scratch, that’s the big bang. The universe expands and defines itself in front of you. When you step onto a long-standing book like X-Men, the broad parameters of the universe are already in place. You can add detail – lots of it – and illuminate aspects of it that have never been seen, but you can’t change its shape past a certain point. You need to be aware of that – to know what will give and what won’t.
Of all the characters you’ve written, which one’s given you the most trouble in finding their “voice,” and what was your, “A-HA! I’ve got you now,” moment?
Probably Lucifer, strangely enough – and it was a long time before I had it absolutely right. At first I made him too formal. Then I re-read the Sandman stories where he appeared, and took him to an opposite extreme, making him speak in a blunt, demotic style like Neil’s Lucifer. Neither felt quite right for what we were doing with the character, and what we ended up with was something in between: a cold, precise, functional register with undertones of intellectual snobbery and emotional distance. Issue 4 was the turning point, as it was with so many things.
Much of your superhero work has been under the Marvel banner, any chances of your someday tackling anything within the DC Universe proper?
It could happen, but it’s unlikely to happen soon. I’m very happy where I am, and very rusty on DC continuity: the effort of getting to the point where I could write DCU characters would be considerable.
When you were tapped as writer of Marvel’s Ultimate Fantastic Four, you had to have known your work would in some ways be compared with the likes of your predecessors such as Lee & Kirby, John Byrne, Warren Ellis. When you tackle something with such an established comics lore, which are you more concerned with: telling stories that live up to the scope of the characters and the men who worked on them or just telling the best story you can tell?
Well, Ultimate Fantastic Four was a very special case, in some ways. The brief, as I understood it, was to take elements from the classic and genre-defining Lee/Kirby run and run ram-raids on them: re-invent and re-combine ideas, characters and themes for a modern audience. I think everything I did on that book was a jazz riff on something that Lee and Kirby did first. Well, with one exception, which was a homage to a different Kirby book.
On X-Men, to take a contrary example, none of those factors applied. I wasn’t trying to recreate the feel of any one era or to resurrect ideas that previous creative teams had already put their mark on. Quite the opposite, in fact. In my first year on the book, all the antagonists I had the X-Men face were new: the Children of the Vault, Pandemic and the Hecatomb were all my own characters.
The Unwritten is your newest project under the Vertigo imprint, it’s been met with near universal praise and more importantly, strong sales. How much of a burden off your shoulders is it when you see strong numbers come in and you know you’re going to be able to continue the story you set out to tell?
Oh man, it’s a wonderful feeling. With Crossing Midnight, we had the constant anxiety of watching the numbers and wondering how wide a window we had to finish out the story. It’s not pleasant at all, when mentally you’re still in act one of a narrative, to find yourself having to plan out the climax and coda.
With Lucifer, I had the experience of letting a story grow and define its limits in a very organic way. We had nearly seven years on the book, and when it stopped it was because we’d reached the point we were always aiming for. I want that for The Unwritten, too, and – although you can never tell – early signs are very good.
I had the opportunity to interview you once before and something you’d said really struck me. You said the desire to work with so many diverse properties such as Red Sonja to Faker was borne more from fear of the work going away than from wanting to test different waters. Now, with nearly two years gone, five novels, a well-received creator-owned series and more, do you still feel this way?
Yes and no. That anxiety is always what drives me: it’s my primary strength, in that it makes me hugely productive, and my Achilles Heel, in that it prevents me from ever entirely relaxing.
But I write in different genres and media because I love to write, and because I want to keep stumbling on new things. I don’t want to become the kind of writer who ends up pastiching past successes because he’s got nothing new to say or show.
In other words, there’s a positive side as well as a negative side to the psychology here. I’m neurotic as hell, I freely admit: but that’s not the only thing that keeps me moving forward.
What more should we be on the lookout for in the near future?
I’ve got more projects in the pipeline with Marvel, which should be announced soon. I’m working on the sixth Castor novel, and on a separate project that I’m co-writing with my wife and daughter. I’m also doing a movie screenplay – TRINITY – for UK producer Slingshot. It’s an exciting time for me right now.