Mike Carey Is Staying Up Late And "Crossing Midnight"

Mon, February 26th, 2007 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Arune Singh, Staff Writer

It's not easy having siblings. There's rivalry, senses of entitlement and having to vie for the affection of your parents. Oh, and your older sibling may have supernatural abilities that put you and your entire family in jeopardy. You'd think big brother would be happy just impressing your female friends, but as readers have learned in the DC Comics/ Vertigo series "Crossing Midnight," spiritual bargains may be thicker than blood. Written by Mike Carey and illustrated by Jim Fern, the series has debuted to strong reviews and strong fan buzz. Carey spoke to CBR News about "Crossing Midnight," where it's going and what the heck it's all about.

"It's really very much a folk story - and like most folk stories, it's got a big, dark thread of horror running right through it," explained Carey of "Crossing Midnight" to CBR News. "The primary inspiration comes from Japanese folk beliefs - the equivalent of the faerie tradition in the Western world. The animistic idea that there are spirits or intelligences in everyday objects has a long pedigree in Japan, and that's one of the things we're drawing on here. Those spirits, the yokai and their more important cousins the kami, are absolutely central to the story we're telling.

"Ultimately the title tells us a hell of a lot - defines what the story is about, really. The word "crossing" implies two things. The first is transition. 'Crossing Midnight' is about transitions from one world to another, from city to city, from child to adult. It dramatises coming of age both literal and metaphorical. But a crossing is also a journey, and the story structures itself as a quest - a journey of redemption and self-sacrifice. The crossing of midnight is a voyage our twin protagonists take, to find each other and themselves."

The heroes of "Crossing Midnight" are two twins from the Hara family-Kai, born just before midnight and Toshi, the sister born just after midnight. While it seems like only minutes (and gender) separate these two, Carey explained that the Hara twins are quite different. "As they grow up, they share the natural closeness and intimacy that a lot of twins have, but it turns out that there's an important difference between them. Toshi, the after-midnight twin, has strange powers, although they're not under her conscious control. The first sign we get that there's something strange about her is when she falls on some sharp iron railings when she's about eleven or twelve - and the railings bend rather than break her skin. After that she experiments and discovers that nothing with a blade or an edge can harm her. Then when Toshi is fifteen it becomes apparent that this handy little trick comes with a high price tag: a weird supernatural being who calls himself Aratsu, the lord of the knives, comes and claims her as his servant, saying that it's in fulfilment of a bargain he made with her father before she was born. He asks her to go with him to his house, which is a long way away, and enter into his service. Naturally, Toshi says no - and that brings real and terrifying consequences which just continue to escalate through the whole of the first arc.

"By contrast Kai, the before-midnight twin, seems to be entirely normal and unexceptional. It's his story too, as he tries to help his sister dig herself out of this quandary, but it seems that there's nothing at all remarkable about him. Then we gradually realise that there are things he's doing too, without even being aware of them. There's no such thing as normal, as Morrissey tells us."

It's rare to see a comic book with two siblings in the lead role, but then again fans have learned that Carey is always one for bucking the trend. "I think maybe there's a tendency in a lot of genre fictions to have lone heroes - protagonists who come with a minimum of baggage," explained the writer. "That naturally includes not having much in the way of defined or explicit family connections.

"I have twin sons who are now twelve years old. I've watched them grow, and I've been fascinated by the similarities and the differences between them - by how two people can be so alike and so distinct at the same time. Twins are like opposite faces on a Rubik's cube: when one changes the other one does, but not in precisely similar ways. The algorithms are too complicated to understand.

"But it goes beyond that. Family is just part of my mind-set. If you look at 'Lucifer' with that in mind, you can see how many stories there (including the story of Lucifer and God) hinge on parent-child relationships. And look who I put into my X-Men team - Mystique and Rogue. I gravitate towards those themes and those relationships."

As mentioned earlier, Carey has integrated a lot of Japanese mythology into the story of "Crossing Midnight" and while some may imagine drunken nights in Shinjuku, written off as "research," Carey revealed a much different reality. " I'll happily admit that all of the research has been secondary. I've never lived in Japan. I've never even set foot there. I do read a lot of manga, watch a lot of Eastern movies. I have Japanese friends, and my niece has lived in Tokyo for the past two years, so I've got reference points for the settings and the culture, but let me be absolutely clear on this: you're seeing in this book a Japan that's one stage removed from the reality. It's a Westerner's largely uninformed riff on how Japan works and what it's like to live there.

"I don't think that's necessarily a fault, because cultural commentary isn't a large part of the book. It does reference a lot of Japanese cultural elements, especially those that seem most weird and inexplicable to Western eyes - the enjokosai girls, the incredibly regimented homeless community in Tokyo's Ueno Park, stuff like that. But I'm not writing from an anthropological point of view. I'm telling a dark fairy story, or a horror story with fantastic elements. The setting needs to feel authentic enough to draw you in and to make you suspend enough of your disbelief to go with the narrative flow - so that we can then start scaring the bejasus out of you."

Principal in the series is Nagasaki, famous for its World War II history, and while chances are that the bomb is what makes it stick out in your mind, Carey has been shedding light on the rest of Nagasaki's history. "It is the history, really - but not just the modern history that everyone knows about," explained Carey of why he chose the setting for his story. "Obviously Nagasaki was the spot where the second atomic bomb fell (although it wasn't the target originally chosen), and obviously that's an event that's written in big marquee type on the minds of everyone who lives there. And we do reference the explosion right at the start of issue one - "granite into steam". But the city had a unique history before that too. It was the first open port in Japan - the first to allow Westerners to trade, and then to stay and set up communities. It has the oldest Christian church in Japan. So it's always been a crossroads, a place where opposites met, and it's always been prepared to love the alien. That's as big a part of why we chose it as the World War two context. Again, it's a question of those central themes that we were trying to nail in the title. Transitions, liminal spaces, self and other coming face-to-face."

While "Crossing Midnight" contains a lot of horror elements, those elements aren't necessarily what American fans might expect from a book labeled as "horror." American cinema favors "slasher" forms and a gory presentation, while "Crossing Midnight" has favored a different approach. "Well you know there are slasher elements," admitted Carey. "We have two dismemberments in our first arc. But you're right that there's more going on here than just ripping people open to see what their insides look like. I like horror that actually scares me, and all too often flying entrails leave me pretty much bored. Okay, you can get your sudden shocks that way, but that's all: the horror that stays with you is the horror of insidious and disturbing and indelible ideas and images, and it's noticeable that Japan really goes for that kind of horror more than anything else. If you've ever read any of Junji Ito's work, or Hideshi Hino's, you'll know what I mean. 'Uzumaki' is one of the scariest things I've ever read, and the monster is an abstract shape!

"We want to have beats like that in 'Crossing Midnight,' too: parts of the story that scare you by coming at you from an angle you weren't expecting, and that stay in your mind for a long time afterwards."

While one would do a disservice to "Crossing Midnight" if one were to classify it under any single category, it's readily apparent that this is a story about integrity. Not just the classic moral integrity we're so used to seeing tested, but also the strength and type of character needed to stay true to one's own true nature. " On one level it's all about keeping faith with something, or trying to," said the scribe. "In the next arc, Cut Here, we'll see two of the main characters in different ways having something fundamental stripped from them - being distorted away from their own real natures. And in the longer term it's a story about how far you're prepared to go to keep faith with a person or an idea that's the absolute core that you've built your identity on.

"I said earlier that this was essentially a folk story. One of the stories that had the most powerful effect on me when I was a kid was the Hans Christian Andersen story The Snow Queen, and you can definitely see that as one of the informing myths here. In the original story it's not siblings but childhood friends. The boy, Kay, gets a splinter of a magic mirror in his heart which corrupts and seduces him to evil. He abandons his family and goes off with the Snow Queen. But his best friend, a little girl named Gerda, follows him and ultimately frees him by melting the splinter with the magical virtue of her own tears. Summarised like that it sounds kind of overblown and sentimental, but I can remember being riveted by it when I first came across it, and I can see definite echoes here in 'Crossing Midnight.' It's a quest story, superficially childish but with very scary and disturbing implications. And our story has some of those same structures working in it."

Contributing quite largely to that story is artist Jim Fern, whose pencils have made "Crossing Midnight" as acclaimed for its art as for its writing. "I saw Jim's work on some fill-in issues of Fables, and I was blown away by it," revealed Carey. "I think there are two ways you can go, in stylistic terms, with a story like this. You can either be very stylised and stripped down - the way Neil Gaiman went with 'The Kindly Ones,' bringing the amazing Marc Hempel on board - or you can go ultra-real and insist on the actuality, the physical presence, of everything you're seeing. We wanted to take the second option, and it seemed like Jim would have the right kind of mind-set and the right skills to make that work. As you can see, it's paid off big-time. He's absolutely meticulous in his research, in his linework, in the character designs, everything. He makes you believe, which is more than half the battle."

If you haven't checked out "Crossing Midnight" yet, you're probably not alone, as Vertigo has become known for collecting new series in trade paperbacks quite quickly, leaving some readers to "wait for the trade." With so many comic books competing for rack space and monthly sales examined closely, some creators have criticized those fans who eschew monthly issues in favor of collections. Not Carey, who said, "I'm cool with that. 'Lucifer' only sold moderately well as a monthly book, but did - and continues to do - very well in trades. A lot of people pointed out at the time that it was a book that read a lot better in trade form, because the story became so complex and had so many ongoing elements. On the other hand, there's always the danger that if too many people wait for the trade then sales will slip below the event horizon and the trade won't happen."

If you're planning on checking out upcoming issues of "Crossing Midnight," you'll be glad to hear that Carey has lots of exciting events planned-no catching your breath in this mature readers series. "Well, the second arc is very short, just two issues, and you could say it deals with the after-shocks of the first arc - it shows all the events we've already seen playing themselves out, destructively and irresistibly, across the other members of the Hara family and their acquaintances. It's called 'Cut Here,' for reasons that will become obvious.

"Then with the third arc we're following Toshi as she learns what her new life is going to consist of - as she's given her training and her tools and sent out to perform a very specific and very strange set of duties in night-time Tokyo. We learn a lot more here about the world of the kami and the yokai and how it intersects with our own, and we meet some really bizarre supporting characters - three-time virgin Mimi Oguno; Ekobandur, who is sort of a dark, twisted Peter Pan figure; and the Gleaner, who is one of the five faces of Death. Oh, and we also get to see what's going on with the mute police officer, Yamada, who seems to know a lot more than he should about the Hara twins - and we get more of an idea of who and what Aratsu, the lord of the knives, really is.

"And after that we have a murder mystery, also set in Tokyo, which pits Kai against some really foul demons and some really cute girls."

While CBR News doesn't know what power those demons and girls may have, we do know that Carey likes to include characters with flame powers in most of his series. So when will we see one in "Crossing Midnight?" "You know, I've been trying to find a way to get the Human Torch and Firestorm a cameo," laughed Carey.

 
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