Normal Consciousness Will Be Resumed: Comic Book Virtuoso Mike Carey In His Own Words

Thu, December 1st, 2005 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Tom Waters, Guest Contributor

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For the uninitiated, comic writer Mike Carey is the second coming as far as Neil Gaiman's fantasy masterpiece "Sandman" is concerned. After the Sandman library ended its epic run, he resurrected Samael, also known as the Morning Star, better known as Lucifer. The Eisner Award-Winning Vertigo title has gone on to a great deal of financial and critical success and, never one to rest on his laurels, Carey has kept busy writing a number of inspired story arcs for "John Constantine: Hellblazer," Batman, and the one shot hardcover "The Furies."

"Lucifer: The Wolf Beneath The Tree" (DC/Vertigo) explores the series roots while rushing towards its sad but inevitable conclusion. Writer/Creator Mike Carey and artists Peter Gross, Ryan Kelly, P. Craig Russell and Ted Naifeh delve into a fable behind the construction of the kingdom of heaven and what happened to Lilith after her exile from the garden of Eden. Furthermore, the volume follows Lucifer's continuing struggle to escape the grip and shadow cast by his father and his battle for universal autonomy.

For the uninitiated, the series is a high watermark for quality in adult graphic fantasy, chronicling the Morning Star's resignation from the duties of Hell and subsequent dealings on the earth and beyond. Over the course of the series, Lucifer has double crossed God, created a world in his own image, battled the heavenly host on his own terms and tangled with more than his share of adversaries while somehow managing to come away stronger with a clever remark in tow. The dialogue is incomparable for the medium, and the series is a lightning rod for some of the most talented artists in the business. In terms of fantasy, there are no substitutes for Lucifer.

CBR News' Tom Waters had the opportunity to speak with Mr.Carey on an overseas call from his London home regarding his writing, his love for comics, and his obsession with myths, fables and fairy tales.

CBR News: Have you put a great deal of research into the occult and demonology in order to write "Lucifer," or is it part of a life long fascination with myths and fables in general?

Mike Carey: It's more the second than the first. It's a lifelong fascination. I do specific research for specific storylines, but I was a lit major at university [Oxford] and I did Latin and Greek at school, so I've always been sort of interested in myth. I've always been saturated with the myths of certainly Mediterranean cultures. As I've sort of gone through my first degree and my higher degree I continued to sort of revisit the themes I was fascinated by.

To some extent, it comes from my weird background. I was born in Liverpool, and my dad was Catholic and my mom was Anglican and this is in one of the most sectarian cities on the British main lands. Mainly second and third generation Irish immigrants. So religion was a big part of my childhood and yet I was slightly detached from it because I came from this family where there was a kind of religious truce going on. And this was a city that was experiencing a religious Cold War. It was a part of my upbringing without my ever being a believer.

CBR News: British novelists have a flair for penning multiple genres convincingly, while British comic writers are capable of delving off the beaten path into brilliant explorations of mysticism, regional history and folklore. What do you suppose this is attributed to?

MC: That's a difficult one to answer.

CBR News: Well, American novelists usually stick to one genre and don't deviate.

MC: If you address the comic side of that question, I think there was certainly a time going back to the '80s when British writers were more irreverent with regard to tradition and therefore more prepared to take outrageous risks when it came to reinventing canonical characters and revisiting old storylines, themes and comic genres. I'm obviously thinking of people like Alan Moore and Grant Morrison. But to a lesser extent I think it's true of a whole generation of British writers just more prepared to play. And their American counterparts. I don't think that difference is anything like it was now, if it still exists now as it was in the '80s. Now there's less to choose between the British and the American proponents in the medium.

I'm trying to sort of pin down why that disparity arose in the first place. I think maybe it's a cultural thing and that sounds like a trivialism. The comic medium is experienced in a different way by British kids growing up than it is by American kids growing up. We were cursed by the irregularities and the unreliability of comics distribution. When I was growing up in Liverpool, the newsagents and general stores around me would get American comics in, but it would be different comics every month. You'd go in on the day the delivery was received and raid the spinner rack and you might pick up a Superman, World's Finest, Fantastic Four, Spider-Man or whatever, and next month you'd go in and none of those titles would be there. There'd be a separate set of comics.

So you became eclectic, you'd pick up anything at all that fell into your hands. DC and Marvel, obviously, but also Dell, Gold Key, Charlton, all of those things. And the homegrown stuff and translations of European comic books when they became available. So you were constantly grubbing around for whatever comic stories you could get into your greedy little hands. It inevitably meant, I guess, that you absorbed a huge rag tag of material just because there was never enough. You could never rely on exactly what you were looking for. So I think maybe we had a broader education in the medium than some of our American counterparts.

CBR News: Going back to 2003 for a second, how did "The Furies" come about?

MC: Let me think back…partly it was just that John Bolton was available and Shelley [Shelley Bond, senior editor at DC Comics] was interested in exploring the possibility of us doing something together, which was a very exciting prospect for me because I loved his (Bolton's) work, particularly his fully painted art, all of his stuff. So I was very happy to throw in a pitch. I've always felt that the Lyta Hall story from "Sandman" was one that had been left hanging, and it niggled me. I felt that there was a resolution needed there and I felt that there was a good story that could be told. Also, of course, it was a story that allowed me to play with characters from Greek mythology in a way that I enjoyed, that I found quite appealing. The story had a lot of resonance on a lot of different levels. It talked about the way that myth impinges on individual experience. So I guess it was those things coming together, but the initial impetus was Shelley saying 'Why don't you and John do something together?'

CBR News: The artwork on "The Furies" was absolutely beautiful.

MC: (enthusiastically) It was, and I think in a strange way it accomplishes the same thing that the Mark Hemphill work on "The Kindly Ones" ("Sandman" Library Vol.8) did, which it disassociates you and dislocates you from reality just enough so that you accept all the weird stuff that's happening.

CBR News: I took about six years of Latin and I don't remember a shred of it other than word derivatives, but I remember an image of Hermes in "The Furies" that was really powerful and iconoclastic.

MC: Was it Hermes on the wheel?

CBR News: The phrase "Normal Consciousness Will Be Resumed" appears a number of times in "Lucifer." Is this an inside joke or an obscure reference?

MC: (laughs) It's simply an example of me and Peter [Gross] picking up on something that we've already done once and sort of revisiting it and playing with it. The first time that phrase appears it's on a t-shirt in a window and one of the characters, I think it's Mazikeen, is looking through the window. It's just after the heavenly invasion of Los Angeles when the entire population basically loses consciousness because the host of heaven are attacking Lux to try and take control of the gateway from Lucifer. So everyone's had this kind of fugue, this interruption of their thought processes. Then they wake up with this sense of a gap and no explanation for it. So "Normal Consciousness Will Be Resumed" is simply somebody's playful attempt to refer to that.

Later, when Lucifer and Mazikeen go to hell in Dalliance Of The Damned ("Lucifer" Vol. 3), Peter has her wearing the t-shirt. It was his idea that, basically, Lucifer would play the game and turn up in 18th century regalia so that he would fit in. Mazikeen would simply, stubbornly, gracelessly, cheerlessly be herself. She'd simply turn up in whatever she was wearing, and he put that t-shirt on her because it just stuck out a mile. Then after that, every so often we would drop in a reference to it or you'd see it in the background or whatever, so I guess it did become an in-joke.

CBR News: Is "Lucifer" "Joanie Loves Chachi" to "Sandman's" "Happy Days," or more a "Frasier" to "Cheers?"

MC: Um, "Frasier" to "Cheers." That's an appealing analogy!

CBR News: Do you have any superstitions, talismans or rituals involved when it comes to your writing process?

MC: Yes, I have one ritual that it seems I can never get away from. I have to draw the issue before I can write it. I can't draw to save my life. My drawings are laughable. When I was a kid, because I couldn't master the representation of the human body, I used to do comics in which the characters were eggs, eggs with arms and legs, like the "Beanworld" characters of Larry Marder, and I've never progressed beyond that point, but I need to draw the pictures, I need to see the panels in front of me before I can script. The times when I've tried to go direct from a plan, to scripting without drawing, just didn't work. The story fell apart on me.

CBR News: You're known as a workaholic. What do you do to unwind and how often do you allow yourself a vacation?

MC: I don't unwind very much on a day-to-day basis. I'm driven by such huge insecurities. I don't know why that is, but when I'm not working, I'm antsy, and I'm thinking about the things I could be doing. I have started forcing myself now to take regular vacations. We spent a week in the north of England about a month ago, the whole family, and that was really nice, and we're going to Paris for a few days in a few weeks' time. So short vacations have now become a feature of our life. It's on the day-to-day level that I don't relax much, you know? I work. I maybe take a ten-minute break for a cup of coffee, then it's back at the keyboard. I'm always sort of turning ideas over in my mind. I'm definitely going to be one of these guys who dies young because of the stress lines in my personality.

CBR News: How much religious fervor has "Lucifer" caused for you and DC?

MC: Could you rephrase that? You mean in terms of…

CBR News: Knee jerk outrage from religious groups either in America or over in Great Britain.

MC: Surprisingly little. Very early on we got people turning up on the message boards saying that we were all going to be damned. Then much later, there were a few Christian evangelicals who hijacked the Vertigo message board and succeeded in driving all the people away from it just from trolling in every thread. But we've never been attacked in a high profile way in the media, I think because comics are such a self-enclosed form. It's a niche medium, in a way. It's below the cultural radar of a lot of these powerful evangelical groups. They've never noticed us and therefore never caused any real problems, which has been a great relief.

CBR News: You're bringing "Lucifer" to an end soon, right?

MC: Actually, we're coming to the end now. Issue #75 is going to be the big climax. Actually, that's not true. The real climax comes in issue #69, the end of Morningstar, but then there are repercussions from that which take it forward to #75 and then at #75 we stop.

CBR News: I strictly read the trades because the monthlies would drive me nuts because I'm not a patient person.

MC: Right. A lot of people feel that it reads better in trades anyway, because the story line has become so complex and convoluted now. It's hard to read in monthly segments, which if it's true is a failing on my part, I guess. I tried to make each issue a self sustaining read which is satisfying on it's own terms but some people feel that there's too much of a weighted back story now.

CBR News: Do you foresee anyone forming an epic around peripheral characters in "Lucifer?"

MC: I would be very happy for that to happen. I haven't been told of any plans to do that, though. DC owns the characters and they can give it to anybody they want to. We talked at different times about doing a Mazikeen miniseries, about doing something with Gaudium and Sparrow because they're very enjoyable characters to write, perhaps taking Elaine's story further without giving too much away about what happens at the end of Lucifer. But at the moment, all of those things are just blue sky.

CBR News: I could see Mazikeen as having a million one-offs in the same way that Death had a long life after "Sandman."

MC: Yeah. She's a very interesting character and the dynamics of their relationship are fascinating, I think. I've really enjoyed showing how that relationship mutates as the balance of power shifts between the two of them. Mazikeen has gone through more changes than any other character with the possible exception of Elaine over the lifetime of the comic.

CBR News: How did you crawl into John Constantine's head?

MC: I was already there. I'd read every issue. I'd read from his first appearances in "Swamp Thing" on and I was already sort of a John Constantine completist. But also, his experience in some ways parallels mine because he's a Liverpudlian who's moved to the south of England and made London his home, which is exactly what I did. I came south to go to college and never went home again. So there are an awful lot of references in his life, which have counterparts in mine and one of the joys of writing "Hellblazer" has been drawing on that stuff, drawing on my own life to provide the impetus to stories in his.

CBR News: I always try to tell non-aficionados the story about how he and his friend in Ireland convert a pool of holy water into a pool of perfect lager.

MC: That was great! That was in Garth's time, wasn't it? A lovely moment.

CBR News: Your work on "Thirteen" dipped heavily into punk subculture. What is the English fascination with the Punk Era, if you don't mind my asking?

MC: For me, as somebody who lived through the '70s and the '80s, that was my youth. The appeal is that at that time we had a very authoritarian government under Margeret Thatcher and my dissension as a sort of rabidly left wing student was that all the sort of regular channels of debate and protest were being closed down. And punk was just an electrifying radicalization of popular music so that it became the voice that we didn't have directly in politics.

CBR News: What are your thoughts on "Good Omens?"

MC: The Pratchett/Gaiman book? I really enjoyed it. I thought it was a splendid read. I was really sorry that they never got around to writing the sequel, particularly because the title they had lined up for it was one of the most inspired that I'd ever come across. It was going to be called "664-The Neighbor Of The Beast."

CBR News: Jill Presto has held her own better than most mortals in the series. What, as a character, has made her so resilient and what plans do you have for her?

MC: What makes her so resilient…I don't know. To some extent, she's a…I hesitate to say this, I was gonna say a Christ figure, but let me qualify that. She is someone who largely suffers and endures if you look at the arc that she's gone through. There are only two or three points where she is important as an actor in the key events. Most of the time she is being acted upon, and she's been through these appalling traumas and tortures. That passive endurance is maybe the key to that character. She's strong, but it's a very different strength from Mazikeen's or Lucifer's. It's just a hanging on by your fingernails kind of strength.

CBR News: She also seems to abide by Lucifer's exacting standards in terms of etiquette.

MC: Yes, yeah, and she's one of the few people who accorded a certain amount of clarity in return. The moment when, at the end of "Children and Monsters" [Vol.2], when Lux burns and she and Lucifer exchange words in the ruins, he is intimidating her. He asks her at one point what she's got to say to him, expecting an apology, instead of which she says, 'I think you're a power mad son of a bitch', and he laughs, he says, 'Yeah, right on every count, but don't wait around for my good humor to evaporate.' There are very few people he would allow to get away with that.

CBR News: You're obviously a fellow "Sandman" aficianado. What do you think about Tim Burton directing a trilogy in the same manner that Peter Jackson labored with on "Lord Of The Rings?"

MC: Wow. That would be well worth the price of admission, actually. It's hugely cinematic, isn't it? It's amazing that nobody has done that. I know that there were plans for a "Sandman" movie and I know that it's been through many, many drafts of scripting, but as far as I know, it's not even in preproduction, is it? It's kind of stalled. The "Death" movie may happen, but the "Sandman" movie won't and you'd have thought that it would be such an easy sell.

CBR News: I don't know how they'd reduce ten volumes into three movies, but after "Constantine" I'm not terribly optimistic.

MC: I noticed that they're doing, I don't know who the production company is, but "The Chronicles Of Narnia" are going to be the next huge fantasy epic and in the wake of Jackson people are looking for big, big franchises that they can continue to milk, for want of a better word.

CBR News: I'm shocked and surprised that there's a "V For Vendetta" film coming out.

MC: Yeah, um, which Alan Moore has not been complimentary about, I understand. It was also how he had a big break-up with DC, isn't that right?

CBR News: I believe so, yeah. I know the "From Hell" film didn't do the book half the justice it deserved.

MC: And "League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen" was a farce.

CBR News: Do you have any epics tucked up your sleeve after "Lucifer" finishes off?

MC: Not in comic form. I'm talking to Vertigo about doing another monthly, but at the moment, everything is at a very early stage, and I don't know whether that will happen or not. I have a pitch in for a sort of very folkloric monthly series which would be fun to do, but I'm also writing a series of novels for Time/Warner, which I guess that will be my next epic if it takes off. Have you heard about these?

CBR News: I know you've got a novel and a movie in the works, I'm just not sure about the fine details.

MC: The novel deal was for three novels initially, but I've delivered the first and my editor is keen to see how I would expand the series beyond those three initial story lines. The story is about an exorcist who lives in London, but he's not a priest, he's not a religious man in any sense, he just has a skill he was born with for both seeing the dead and being able to bind them. And this is at the time when the dead had started to rise in a variety of very antisocial forms. So you get ghosts, but you also get zombies and there are were-creatures who are also basically human ghosts inhabiting animal forms. So there's a great demand for the services of this guy who's name is Felix Castor. But he's a deeply flawed figure and in the first novel, we're sort of taking him through a series of traumatic events which basically cause him to reevaluate what he's doing and how he does it. By the end of the first book he's become something a little bit different than an exorcist, he's got a different sort of attitude toward the dead and a responsibility to the dead. It's a lot of fun to do and it's a very different process than writing a comic. So far it's been entirely positive. It remains to be seen how the books will be received, but for me it's been a very pleasant and very fulfilling change of pace.

For more with Carey, don't miss our interview with the writer from this past August.

 
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